As gun crimes rises, Biden zeroes in gun makers’ exemption from being sued

America Letter: President highlights importance of new access to manufacturers’ internal papers

There has been a lot of talk in the US this week about guns – and not just in relation to the attacks on the New York subway on Tuesday that left 10 people with gunshot wounds and at least a dozen more with other injuries.

There have also been a number of other incidents in which people were killed.

On the same day in New York, a 23-year-old woman from the Bronx who was sitting in her parked car died after being shot in the head when gunfire erupted nearby.

The previous Friday, a 16-year-old girl was walking home from school, also in the Bronx, when she was killed by a stray bullet.

There has been a surge in the number of shootings in New York in recent times. Up to early April, more than 330 people in the city had been shot.

But New York was not the only place to witness gun tragedies.

In Florida, a 17-year-old boy was killed after he and another teenager took turns wearing a piece of body armour and firing a gun at each other.

In Baton Rouge, Louisiana on Wednesday a stray bullet, apparently fired during a gunfight, struck and killed a three-year-old boy who was lying in bed.

Ghost guns

With crime rates rising in a number of big cities and President Joe Biden's poll numbers in the doldrums, the White House set out this week to clamp down on untraceable so-called "ghost guns".

Firearms in the US are available to buy not only in gun stores or at shows, but can also be made at home, in little or no time, from kits purchased over the internet.

In a piece of theatrics during a ceremony at the White House Biden stepped away from the lectern, picked up two pieces of a handgun and said: “It’s not hard to put together. A little drill – hand drill at home. It doesn’t take very long. Anyone can order it in the mail. Anyone.

“And, folks, a felon, a terrorist, a domestic abuser can go from a gun kit to a gun in as little as 30 minutes.

“Buyers aren’t required to pass background checks. Because guns have no serial numbers – these guns – when they show up at a crime scene, they can’t be traced. Harder to find and prove who used them. Meaning you can’t connect the gun to the shooter and hold them accountable.”

Biden said the US government would make it illegal for a business to manufacture one of these kits without a serial number. It would also be unlawful for a licensed dealer to sell them without a background check.

The president also warned of a crackdown on rogue gun dealers and illegal trafficking of weapons between states.

And in a slapdown to some progressives who last year were calling for the police to be “defunded”, the president again said what was needed instead was to give law enforcement the money, tools, and training for them to be “the partners and the protectors of our communities in need”.

The president also urged the US Congress to introduce broader gun-control measures such as requirements for universal background checks and a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines – presumably in the knowledge that these were unlikely to have any chance of being supported by Republicans.

Republicans in many states are actually moving to loosen restrictions around firearms. On Tuesday Georgia's Republican governor Brian Kemp signed a bill that made it legal for most residents to carry a concealed weapon without a licence.

Biden also called for the elimination of gun manufacturers’ immunity from liability. “They’re the only [industry] in the country that is immune. Imagine had the tobacco industry been immune to being sued. Come on.”

On the hook

Weapons manufacturers in the US cannot be held liable for the use of their products in a crime. However they are on the hook for a range of other things such as negligence, breach of contract regarding the purchase of a gun, or certain damages from defects in the design of a firearm.

In 2019, the supreme court permitted a lawsuit to go ahead against gun manufacturer Remington Arms Company by a survivor and families of victims of the Sandy Hook school shootings in Connecticut. This case was settled for $73 million in February.

Apart from the money, the plaintiffs also secured as part of the judgement the release of thousands of pages of internal company documents.

Biden zeroed in on the importance of this particular issue. He said people should remember that it was not until the internal documents of the tobacco industry were made public that “we really understood what the manufacturers were doing to our kids and to our families”.

“Now we may begin to see what gun manufacturers are and are not doing when it comes to making and marketing their deadly products.”

The president seemed to be suggesting that although political opposition may block any real gun-control measures, the manufacturers’ internal papers may open the door to greater legal action.