Saturday, April 16, 2016

Bernie Sanders, Vermont, gun shop downstream liability, negligent entrustment, and the PLCAA

Here’s an interpretation in Reason (Jacob Sullum, April 15) of Bernie Sanders’s surprising (to some people) support of gunowners (he represents a largely rural state) and willingness to defend gun shops from gratuitous downstream liability. Sanders’s position may surprise many given his quasi-socialism on economic issues and liberal positions on all other social issues.
On the surface, it seems that a gun shop should not be liable for a weapon sold legally to someone able to buy the gun lawfully, after a background check.  The theory at issue seems to be “negligent entrustment.”  A gun shop should not sell a weapon to someone it knows intends to commit a crime from other circumstances, or should not sell assault weapons that seem to have no legitimate use. On the second point, the problem would seem to be holding the shop responsible for selling a lawful object.  If the gun shop is to be responsible, then possession of the assault weapon by a civilian should be illegal (which the current GOP-controlled Congress won’t go along with).

Does the gun shop owner in Connecticut owe a Sandy Hook’s victim an apology?  Sanders may have waffled on this point in the debate.  But as I recall, the weapon had been sold legally to the perpetrator’s mother.  It was the mother’s carelessness with respect to weapons in her house with an emotionally unstable young adult living there that led to the tragedy, not the gun shop owner.
It’s very dangerous to hold sellers of items to downstream liability for what consumers do when the items are sold legally.  That is a very slippery slope that can spread to the speech area.

There is a typical opposing view in the Los Angeles Times March 7, 2016 by Michael Hiltzik, criticizing the PLCAA, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act    But it is always a threat to freedom to hold sellers or providers of lawful items under lawful circumstances responsible for what others do, out of sympathy for victims.

The term “negligent entrustment” also comes into play when a vehicle owner allows someone else to drive his car.

The film "Bill's Gun Shop" (2001), by Dean Hyers in Minnesota, may be relevant. 

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