If Congress can’t get anything done on gun safety reform, several states seem ready, including Colorado where, under a bill introduced by Democrats, owners and makers of assault-style weapons would face civil liability for damages caused by their weapons.
It’s a bold proposal coming from a state with both a history of tragic gun violence and stubborn libertarian-tendencies that typically buck weapons regulation. But this measure, if it passes, would put Colorado at the front of the national conversation about how best to deal with a public health crisis of gun violence.
The law would hold owners, manufacturers and distributors of firearms strictly liable for any harm that comes from their weapons. That means those owners, manufacturers and distributors would be on the hook for money damages no matter the circumstances. The idea behind strict liability law is that there are some products, or activities, that are just simply impossible to make safe–they are, by their very nature, so inherently dangerous that the person making the product or engaging in the activity bears all the risk associated with injury from use. That’s opposed to a negligence standard where the law will only find someone liable if, generally speaking, they failed to act in a reasonable manner under the given circumstances.
Gun manufacturers have successfully shielded themselves from any civil liability related to the use of their weapons thanks to laws lobbied by the NRA that explicitly prevent victims of gun violence from suing manufacturers, importers and dealers. If passed, the Colorado law would lift that shield and put the state at odds with a 2005 federal law protecting gun manufacturers from being held liable for crimes committed with their products. That conflict would likely prompt a legal challenge giving the Supreme Court an opportunity to weigh in.
While bold the measure doesn’t cover all firearms. Hanguns, bolt-action rifles and shotguns are exempt under the proposal.
That a proposal like this has legs in a state like Colorado shows how far the debate has lurched since the NRA’s completely unhinged response to Sandy Hook, and it shows the difference an election cycle can make. This is the bluest the state of Colorado has been with Democrats controlling both chambers of the legislature and the governorship. Sensible gun safety measures like insurance and civil liability exposure– all private, market-driven regulations, certainly falls more into line with Colorado’s anti-government traditions than a measure that would ban assault rifles outright. With the state also leading the way in the fight against marijuana prohibition, this weapons reform push speaks to the emerging progressive base in the state. And it’s a voice Washington would be smart to start listening to.
Photo from gideon tsang via flickr.