The Senate narrowly voted Wednesday to strip gun manufacturers of their exemption from liability for the damage and death that can result from firearms.
Supporters of the bill said gun makers should be held responsible for their products, as are the manufacturers of many other goods in California, from cribs to lawnmowers.
Approval of the bill marked a leap forward for gun control advocates, whose initial campaign to strip away gun makers’ 19-year-old liability exemption stalled last year.
On a party-line 22-13 vote, one more than needed in the 40-member Senate, AB 496 by Assemblyman Paul Koretz (D-West Hollywood) was passed and returned to the Assembly for approval of Senate amendments.
The Assembly, meantime, is expected to vote soon on an identical bill, SB 682, by Sen. Don Perata (D-Alameda), a leading gun control advocate. The proposals are sponsored by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
A spokesman for Gov. Gray Davis said the governor has not taken a position on the bills.
In his first year in office, Davis signed several far-reaching gun control bills, then imposed a moratorium on comprehensive new firearms laws. He has signed only a few bills since then.
The immunity legislation would have the effect of overturning a ruling last year by the state Supreme Court. The court upheld the gun manufacturers’ shield against product liability challenges for damage caused by criminals and others who misuse firearms.
The ruling came in a case filed by survivors and relatives of those who were shot in a massacre at a San Francisco high-rise law office in 1993. Armed with a pair of semiautomatic pistols capable of firing 32 rounds each without reloading, the gunman, Gian Luigi Ferri, killed eight people and wounded six. As police closed in, Ferri killed himself.
The plaintiffs sued the manufacturer of the guns, Navegar Inc., for damages, noting that the two TEC-DC9 pistols were knockoffs of assault weapons that had been outlawed in California.
When the case reached the high court, justices ruled in favor of Navegar, saying the company was properly protected by the industry’s exemption. If the Legislature wanted to change it, it was empowered to do so, the court said.
The immunity law essentially says that guns and ammunition are exempt from product liability attacks because the value of their benefits outweighs their potential for causing serious injury, damage or death.
During debate, Perata insisted Wednesday that the bill was not “aimed at taking anyone’s gun away,” but was intended to hold gun manufacturers legally accountable for their products in the same fashion as other manufacturers are held liable.
He said Navegar made appeals to criminals in the promotion of the TEC-DC9, including advertising it as “fingerprint resistant” and “able to fire without aiming.”
But Republicans, led by Sen. Ray Haynes (R-Riverside), attacked the plan as another assault on gun ownership and an attempt to pin the blame for misuse of guns by criminals on the manufacturers.
“What we are saying here is that it is not the criminal’s fault; it is the manufacturer’s fault,” Haynes argued. “This takes the issue of personal responsibility and turns it on its ear.”
Sen. Jack Scott (D-Altadena), whose adult son was killed in an accidental shooting several years ago, countered that guns kill 30,000 Americans a year. “If you do something that is irresponsible and terribly harmful to the public, there is a price to pay,” Scott said.
The bill was supported by the Million Mom March, the city and county of Los Angeles, California police chiefs, trial lawyers and various medical and health organizations. It was opposed by the California Rifle and Pistol Assn., the National Rifle Assn. and other gun-owner organizations.
The National Shooting Sports Federation, a trade organization that says it represents the firearms industry, did not take a position on the bill. Its officials were unavailable for comment.