Tennessee Lawmakers Pass Bill Protecting Firearms Industry From Lawsuits Over Crimes Involving Guns

Ryan Morgan
By Ryan Morgan
April 19, 2023Politics
Tennessee Lawmakers Pass Bill Protecting Firearms Industry From Lawsuits Over Crimes Involving Guns
Gun control advocates raise signs in the gallery of the Tennessee House chamber in Nashville, Tenn., on April 6, 2023. (George Walker IV/AP Photo)

Members of the Tennessee state Senate voted on Tuesday in favor of a bill that would protect gun and ammunition manufacturers and sellers from civil liability when their products are used to commit crimes.

The Republican-controlled Tennessee Senate passed HB 1189 by a vote of 19 to 9 on Tuesday, after the Republican-controlled House voted 71-24 in favor of the bill on March 6. The legislation now goes to Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s desk for final passage.

The legislation states a firearms industry dealer, manufacturer, or seller cannot be held liable in a civil lawsuit in the state unless they accompanied a person in committing the underlying crime for which the lawsuit was brought or unless they sold a firearm product that was defective.

The law states that if a defective firearm product discharges in the course of a voluntary criminal offense, then that voluntary act must be considered the sole proximate cause of the property damage, injury, or death for which civil liability arises, thus excluding the firearm industry member from liability in that case.

In 2005, the U.S. Congress passed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), which generally protects firearm industry members from civil liability over the criminal misuse of their products. Some states and localities have explored ways in which firearm industry members can be held liable outside the existing protections of the PLCAA.

California passed legislation last year that allows victims of violence involving guns or the state’s attorney general to sue firearm industry members if they can establish that a firearm product was “abnormally dangerous.” The law states a firearm product qualifies as “abnormally dangerous” if it is “most suitable for assaultive purposes instead of lawful self-defense, hunting, or other legitimate sport and recreational activities” or if it is designed, sold, or marketed in a manner that is targeted “at minors or other individuals who are legally prohibited from accessing firearms” or “foreseeably promotes conversion” into an illegal firearm product.

New Jersey passed a similar bill in 2022 that allows the state 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. A federal judge recently granted a preliminary injunction preventing the state of New Jersey from pursuing civil litigation against firearms industry members amid a lawsuit challenging the state’s law.

While some states have looked for avenues to bring civil liability against firearms industry members, Republican Tennessee lawmakers introduced HB 1189 and an identical Senate version of the legislation, SB 822, in January in a move that adds to the civil liability protections of the PLCAA.

HB 1189’s passage in the Tennessee Senate also comes after a high-profile shooting incident in which a suspect entered a private Christian school in Nashville, Tennessee, and killed three children and three adults on March 27. Authorities have identified the suspect in that shooting incident as a transgender individual.

Following the Nashville school shooting, lawmakers passed legislation expanding school security measures with broad bipartisan support.

While Republicans have broadly favored expanding school security, Democrats and gun control advocates have also called for new restrictions on guns in the state following the school shooting. The Tennessee state capitol has been the site of multiple gun control protests in recent weeks and the Tennessee House voted to expel two Democratic lawmakers after they interrupted floor proceedings and used a bullhorn to join chants from gun control protesters in the House gallery.

In light of the Nashville school shooting and subsequent protests, some lawmakers criticized the timing of the legislation to protect the gun industry from criminal use of its products.

“There are people that we should be going out of way to protect this week,” said Sen. Jeff Yarbro, a Democrat from Nashville. “And we’ve been receiving emails and calls, people are holding up signs, telling us to go out of our way to help those people. Not one of those signs says to protect the gun manufacturers.”

Sen. London Lamar, a Democrat from Memphis, said the timing of the liability legislation was “disrespectful.”

Sen. Joey Hensley, a Republican from Hohenwald and the sponsor of the Senate version of the liability legislation, said his bill doesn’t prevent any other proposal from passing.

Sen. Art Swann of Maryville was one of three Republicans who opposed the legislation providing added civil liability protections for the firearms industry.

Swann said “gun-makers have encouraged the environment we’ve got right now,” adding, “they’re accountable for it, and we need to hold them to it.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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