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Could Imposing Liability on Gun Sellers Make Us Safer?

January 30, 2013

Recent mass shootings at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, a movie theater in Colorado, a shopping mall in Oregon and an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. have garnered a lot of media attention, but it is worth pointing out that since the shooting in Newtown on December 14, 2012, the country has seen nearly 1,100 gun-related deaths (20 of whom were children; more than 60 of the total were in Pennsylvania). The point is that gun deaths keep happening, even if they are not on television.

The gun control debate has been raging in Washington, and part of this is a push to hold gun sellers and gun dealers to a higher standard of safety than currently exists. According to Reuters, a federal law called the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act shields gun sellers from civil lawsuits stemming from the “misuse of their products by others.”

Andrew Longstreth from Reuters points out, “The law did not eliminate all civil liability against the gun industry. For instance, it left room for lawsuits against gun dealers or manufacturers that knowingly violate gun control laws, like the Brady Act, which requires licensed firearms dealers to conduct background checks on buyers.”

Those who oppose imposing strict liability on gun sellers point to the fact that the high-profile slayings in Wisconsin, Colorado and Newtown were all committed with legally-obtained firearms, but these represent a very small number of total gun deaths in the past six months or so. And with the rise of gun sales on the Internet, compliance with the Brady Act is becoming more and more muddy and confused.

Very recently, the family of a woman who was shot to death by a stalker brought a lawsuit against a website called Armslist, “an online firearms marketplace that has tens of thousands of guns listed, with no fees, no auctions–and no enforced background checks for buyers.”This is the first lawsuit against an online gun retailer, but it may set a precedent and may help to close what many view as a huge loophole that allows nearly anyone with an Internet connection to buy a gun without being checked out first.

Closing this loophole is a first priority for gun control advocates. The Daily Beast writes, “An undercover investigation of online gun sales done by the City of New York released in 2011 found that 62 percent of private sellers agreed to sell guns to buyers who said they probably couldn’t pass a background check.” These cracks in the system compromise the integrity of properly-conducted background checks and help unfit individuals get their hands on firearms.

People will continue to buy guns. That will not change. But we must do our best to ensure that the safeguards in place remain in place, and that begins with holding irresponsible gun sellers accountable.

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