History Thursday: When DeWine tried to hold the gun industry accountable

By: - February 24, 2022 3:35 am

Then Sen. Mike DeWine addresses the U.S. Senate in 2005. Source: CSPAN.

Before mass shootings in America became a semi-regular occurrence, the Republican Senator from Ohio took to the floor in a plea to hold those who make and sell guns accountable.

The U.S. Senate was on the precipice of passing the “Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act” (PLCAA) in 2005, which created a powerful legal immunity that shielded gun sellers and manufacturers from lawsuits. Senator Mike DeWine, a bespectacled Republican wearing a red sweater under his suit, broke from his party to vote with Democrats.

The legislation came on the heels of several successful lawsuits against manufacturers whose firearms were used in mass killings. It would go on to pass. President George Bush said it would “stem frivolous lawsuits” when he signed it into law. The National Rifle Association’s then-president Wayne LaPierre called it a “historic piece of legislation.”

DeWine, now Ohio’s governor, criticized this thinking. He said the bill unfairly blocks victims of mass violence from their day in court. It creates a rare legal protection that’s nearly unique to the gun industry, he said, and singles out victims of gun violence by forcing them to clear a uniquely high legal hurdle. It also removes a deterrent that incentivizes the gun industry to behave responsibly.

“It undercuts the ability of innocent victims to hold irresponsible individuals accountable for wrongful and negligent actions,” he said.

“Yes, undoubtedly, there are frivolous lawsuits being filed against this industry, there’s no doubt about that. But there are victims who, when this legislation is passed, will not be able to file their lawsuits … Why not trust the good judges, who we trust in every other civil suit in this country, to make the decision to throw out those frivolous lawsuits?”

DeWine’s 30-minute floor speech was a departure from two key planks of Republican politics. It was a vote in favor of more restrictive legal climate around guns in America; and it was a vote against “tort reform,” or restrictions around people’s constitutional right to file lawsuits in open court.

“I voted for Senator DeWine six years ago, but he will never get a vote from me again,” the Buckeye Firearms Association president wrote in 2006, citing DeWine’s vote.

DeWine wasn’t the only Ohio congressman at the time who scrambled party dogma on the issue.

Ohio Democrats in the House of Representatives at the time including Ted Strickland, Marcy Kaptur, and Tim Ryan (all of whom still serve in the House) voted yes on the issue alongside the rest of the state’s Republican delegation. Other Ohio House Democrats including Sherrod Brown (now a U.S. Senator) voted no.

The law has been successful at smothering out lawsuits against gun sellers. It was used to kill New York City’s 2000 lawsuit against gun manufacturers like Beretta, Glock, and Southern Ohio Gun Inc., alleging they fail to track their guns despite knowledge they’re diverted into illegal markets.

In August 1999, a man brought seven illegally possessed weapons into a Jewish Community Center in California and shot and injured three children. Later that day, he killed a postal worker. The man’s widow and the surviving victims sued the manufacturers, distributors and sellers of the guns, alleging they knew or should have known they’d end up on illegal markets, where the shooter procured them. A federal court dismissed the suit under the PLCAA in 2009.

The law hasn’t stopped all claims. Earlier this month, victims of the Sandy Hook school shooting, which left 20 first graders and six adults dead, dropped a lawsuit after agreeing on a $73 million settlement with Remington, which manufactures the AR-15 the shooter used. The New York Times reports the case hinged on an exception built into the law that allowed suits to proceed so long as they’re focused on marketing practice s of gun dealers.

Since 2005, DeWine has straddled the fault lines of the national gun debate. On one hand, he championed a modest anti-gun violence package in 2019 that included strengthened penalties for illegal gun sales, allowing families and law enforcement to petition judges to seize firearms from people experiencing a mental health crisis, enhanced background checks, and others. The idea has gone nowhere in the gun-friendly General Assembly.

However, DeWine also signed a “stand your ground” bill in 2020 expanding the right to shoot to kill in perceived self-defense. He may also soon receive legislation from state lawmakers that would scrap permitting, background check and training requirements to carry a concealed weapon in Ohio — which he privately told the Buckeye Firearms Association he would sign.

A DeWine spokesman declined to comment on the 2005 speech.

Speaking to his colleagues in the Senate at the time, DeWine predicted shootings that “will be so egregious and so bad.” Those who vote for the bill, he said, will have to reckon with the fact that the victims will not be able to hold the gun sellers accountable for the damage their products cause.

“That will be so bad that it will make your stomach turn,” he said.

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Jake Zuckerman
Jake Zuckerman

Jake Zuckerman is a statehouse reporter. He spent three years chronicling the West Virginia Legislature for The Charleston Gazette-Mail after covering cops and courts for The Northern Virginia Daily.

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