Bernie Sanders is Right on Gun Industry Immunity

Jeremy Sarka · Monday, March 7th, 2016 at 6:30 PM PST

In last night's Democratic debate, Bernie Sanders once again had to answer for his vote to give the gun industry immunity from liability for harm caused by criminal use of their products. This is, admittedly, a problematic vote for Sanders, yet no one on the left has made any attempt to defend his position. Even Sanders himself has tried to cast it as a jobs issue, even though there are much better reasons to support immunity—even for supporters of strong gun control. Here they are:

First, we're talking about a degree of liability that doesn't exist in any other industry: liability for intentional (often criminal) harm. If a drunk driver kills someone, General Motors isn't liable because they made the car. If a guy bashes someones head in with a hammer, Home Depot isn't liable because they sold him the hammer. No other industry is liable for harm caused by reckless or intentional misuse of their products—and I'm not sure we'd want them to be. You could argue that guns are different than cars and hammers, because killing is their primary function—but that's not the argument liability advocates are making, they're arguing that it's just an extension of existing product liability. This is a bad argument, both because it will alienate moderate supporters, and because it will set a dangerous precedent for expanding legal liability.

Second, the threat of lawsuits may not make guns safer, it may just make them more expensive. It's entirely possible that the gun industry, instead of trying to improve the safety of their products, could (like the petroleum industry) decide that an occasional legal settlement is an acceptable cost of doing business. Also, unlike targeted regulation that attempts to limit high-risk individuals access to guns (like background checks,) or limit access to certain types of guns (like the assault weapons ban,) this would limit everyones access to guns. Again, it's perfectly reasonable to say that everyone should have less access to guns—but that's not what liability advocates are saying. This will, again, alienate moderate gun control supporters.

Third, it will disproportionately harm small businesses. If you're a billion-dollar arms manufacturer, or a national retail chain, criminal harm liability won't really be a big deal for you—it's just another rider on your corporate insurance policy—but if you're an independent gun dealer or a boutique armorer, that liability could easily put you out of business. Gun industry liability is exactly the sort of regulation that neoliberals like Hillary Clinton love, because it helps large, established businesses maintain their positions in the marketplace at the expense of small entrepreneurs and consumers, and that alone should be reason enough for Leftists to oppose it.

Fourth, it shifts the burden of gun regulation from the government to the individual. This is the big one for me. As Hillary Clinton said in the debate, the threat of lawsuits could help "make guns safer and force sellers to be much more responsible." I don't dispute that, what I dispute is the contention that the threat of lawsuits is the right way to make guns safer and force sellers to be more responsible. Regulating the gun industry is the responsibility of the government. Gun industry liability represents an attempt to shift that responsibility to private individuals—specifically victims of gun violence. Victims of gun violence should not have to bear the burden of regulating the gun industry, and asking them to do so is an act of political cowardice.

The irony of all this is that Clinton's hard-line stance on gun industry liability is completely out of keeping with the rest of her campaign, which has overwhelmingly focused on relatively cautious, centrist proposals that have been billed as acceptable to Congressional Republicans. I can't help but wonder if she's taken this position because it's the one strongly liberal position she can take without offending her donor base—and one she doesn't have to worry about becoming a political liability because she knows it will never get through Congress.

Hillary Clinton has frequently described herself as a proponent of "pluralism," but this is one example where she clearly doesn't believe in pluralism. For many Americans, hunting and gun ownership are significant parts of the culture and economy. Unlike Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders recognizes that they should have a place at the table—and that we will never be able to pass meaningful gun regulation unless they do. And that, more than anything, is why he's right to support gun industry immunity, as should anyone else who wants to see stronger gun control in our lifetimes.

Jeremy Sarka is a writer, artist, programmer, attempted creative professional, and disillusioned Millenial.