Federal Judge Blocks New Jersey Law That Lets State Sue Firearms Industry

Ryan Morgan
By Ryan Morgan
February 2, 2023US News
Federal Judge Blocks New Jersey Law That Lets State Sue Firearms Industry
Lisa Caso sells guns at Caso's Gun-A-Rama store in Jersey City, N.J., on March 25, 2021. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

A federal judge has blocked a New Jersey law that allowed the state to sue members of the firearms industry when their products become a “public nuisance.”

In June 2022, Democratic New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill into law that allows the New Jersey attorney general to pursue civil cases against members of the gun industry if the state determines that their sales or marketing practices are a public nuisance.

The New Jersey law states members of the gun industry “shall not, by conduct either unlawful in itself or unreasonable under all the circumstances, knowingly or recklessly create, maintain, or contribute to a public nuisance in this State through the sale, manufacturing, importing, or marketing of a qualified product.” The law states that if the attorney general believes a member of the gun industry has fallen afoul of that above language, they can be sued and the attorney general “shall not be required to demonstrate that the gun industry member acted with the purpose to engage in any public nuisance or otherwise cause harm to the public” or “demonstrate any special injury” has occurred.

In November, the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), a gun rights advocacy group, filed a complaint seeking to overturn the New Jersey law. NSSF argued the New Jersey law violated the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA) of 2005, which “expressly prohibits and preempts state-law civil actions” against members of the gun industry.

Under PLCAA, members of the gun industry could not be sued for the illegal or unlawful misuse of their firearms per se, though plaintiffs could still sue members of the gun industry if their firearm product had a defect that resulted in someone’s death or injury or other property damage, if they transferred a firearm to someone knowing that it would be used in a crime, or if the gun industry member “knowingly violated a State or Federal statute applicable to the sale or marketing” of the firearm.

U.S. District Judge Zahid Nisar Quraishi issued a preliminary injunction on Tuesday, blocking the state of New Jersey from using its new law to sue members of the gun industry.

Quraishi, an appointee of President Joe Biden, determined that NSSF’s effort to overturn the New Jersey law stands a chance of succeeding on its merits. Quraishi agreed that NSSF’s lawsuit deals with a matter of constitutional interest.

The judge also noted the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution allows federal laws like the PLCAA to preempt state laws like the one imposed by New Jersey. It remains a matter of debate in this case whether New Jersey’s law conflicts with the PLCAA.

The state of New Jersey argues that the portion of the PLCAA that says lawsuits can proceed if a gun industry member knowingly violated a state law applicable to the sale or marketing of a product creates enough legal room for lawsuits under New Jersey’s laws. The New Jersey law does not list specific actions members of the gun industry must take or avoid in their sales and marketing practices.

The NSSF argued that the PLCAA was clearly intended “to shield the firearms industry from vicarious liability for harm caused by lawfully distributed firearms” and the federal law states the specific legal liabilities that the gun industry can face. The gun rights advocacy group argued that a state’s law must impose “concrete obligations” in order for a gun industry member to be held liable for having “knowingly violated” said state’s law.

Reactions to the Decision

NTD reached out to Murphy’s office but did not receive a response.

Murphy’s office did tell Politico he is “disappointed” in the judge’s order, but is “confident that this decision will be swiftly reversed on appeal.”

New Jersey Attorney General Matthew Platkin said the judge’s decision is “unprecedented and unsupportable” and alluded to a May 2022 decision by a New York federal judge who allowed New York to keep in place a similar law.

“Another district court already rejected the exact same arguments put forth by the gun industry last year, and we look forward to swiftly appealing this misguided, outlier decision,” Platkin told NTD.

NSSF welcomed Quraishi’s order that is now blocking the New Jersey law.

“NSSF is pleased by today’s ruling because we know New Jersey’s law is unconstitutional as it is preempted by federal law,” NSSF’s Senior Vice President and General Counsel Lawrence G. Keane said on Tuesday.

NSSF said it will continue to challenge the New Jersey law. NSSF has appealed the judge’s decision in the New York case. The gun rights advocacy group is also actively challenging another gun industry public nuisance liability law in Delaware.

“Today’s decision should give pause to other states considering similar bills modeled on New Jersey’s law before they enact similarly unconstitutional laws that NSSF will challenge on behalf of the firearm industry,” the gun rights advocacy group said.

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