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Up until this week, gun makers were largely not liable in personal injury cases when victims were injured or killed at the hands of a manufacturer’s weapons. Often referred to as gun maker immunity, this is the concept that a weapons company can’t be held responsible for the actions taken by a purchaser of their products. It’s the same concept that if somebody bought any other product from a store – whether it be a knife, a hammer, or anything else that can cause bodily harm – the seller cannot within a reasonable extent determine someone’s motives for doing so. 

That immunity, however, may have just been bypassed thanks to California’s latest major personal injury case involving the 2019 mass shooting of a San Diego-area synagogue. The victims’ argument in Goldstein v. Earnest is rooted not only in the improper sale of the firearm to an individual who didn’t even have a gun license, but also in the claim that manufacturer Smith & Wesson is also at fault for intentionally producing AR-15 style rifles that can easily be modified to become automatic weapons. 

Unprecedented Territory

As we mentioned before, it’s not common for a gun maker to hold any sort of liability for cases like this. Normally, blame is put squarely on the shoulders of the shooter, and any entity that may have illegally sold or provided the firearms. Smith & Wesson did neither. And from the plaintiffs’ perspective, they didn’t have to. Their fight is with the intention behind the manufacture of AR-15 rifles – the same class of gun that was modified and then used by the 19-year-old attacker who killed one worshipper and wounded three others at the Chabad of Poway Synagogue. 

Smith & Wesson’s Pushback

As the lawsuit was declared, Smith & Wesson immediately pushed back. They argued that under the federal government’s Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), they were exempt from such cases. Judge Kenneth Medel of the Superior Court of California for San Diego County, had a differing opinion, however. This week, he rejected the PLCAA argument and ruled that the case was indeed fit to proceed. 

The Victim’s Argument

Lawyers representing the victims of the Chabad of Poway Synagogue shooting say that the gun that was used in the attack was marketed in a way that was supposed to attract military-minded individuals who wanted an easily modifiable weapon. Labeled the M&P15, the M and P stand for “Military and Police,” but the plaintiffs say that most of the people who buy the weapon are actually civilians. In order to win their case, they’ll have to draw more parallels than that, however. Victims will need to prove the following:

  • Is it easy for a civilian to modify the rifle to shoot automatically?
  • Did Smith & Wesson know that it was easy to modify in this fashion?
  • Did Smith & Wesson advertise the rifle to attract buyers who would be interested in its easily modifiable nature? 

If the answer to all of these questions is yes, then this may be one of the biggest wins for gun control that the country has seen in years. 

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