American Culture

To reduce gun violence, make gun owners and sellers liable for violence committed with their guns

GunShowLet me start this post with an admission. If I had the power, I’d happily ban assault weapons completely. I’d also round up the majority of assault-style weapons presently in circulation and destroy them, along with any magazine larger than about five rounds (if you need more than that for hunting, you’re doing it wrong). I think they’re disgusting and useful for only one thing – killing other human beings – and that every argument in favor of owning assault-style weapons (they’re safer, they’re lighter, and they’re great for varmint hunting are a few of the ones I’ve seen offered since Orlando) is bullshit. The fact that AR-15 style weapons were renamed “modern sport rifles” specifically to circumvent the original assault weapon ban tells me that even the gun makers know that they’re selling assault weapons, not hunting rifles. I’ll probably vote to support a ban in the future, and this is one of the many issues on which I grade candidates when I vote. I suspect that many folks reading this are probably very happy that I don’t have this power.

However, I recognize that a ban may not be politically feasible at this time, and even a ban won’t fix everything. Gun crimes, even mass shootings, would still occur- the murderers would simply buy their weapons from the black market or steal them. But there is something that would help reduce the number of deaths due to guns overall, not just gun crimes. Suicides, accidental discharges, and crimes all would be reduced by what I’m about to propose:

Make gun sellers and owners criminally liable for gun crimes committed using their weapons.

For gun sellers, increased criminal liability means that if they sell a weapon to someone who later goes out and commits a crime with that gun, the seller may be fined or jailed, depending on the level of the seller’s liability as determined by a court of law. Other examples include failure to conduct a proper background check, failure to secure the weapons properly (so they’re difficult to steal), selling guns to felons, a history of disregarding the rules and regulations, selling a weapon to a minor, and failure to ensure that the purchaser has a minimum level of training on how to safely use, handle, and store the weapon. I’m sure there are other actions that a gun seller could do that would make them liable, just as I’m sure that there are plenty of details in these few examples that would need to be worked out over the course of writing gun liability legislation. But the idea would be to punish those gun sellers who are either unable or unwilling to take the minimum steps necessary to ensure that the weapons they’re selling are used properly.

As for gun owners, they could be liable in a number of ways. Failure to take safety courses on use, handling, and storage would indicate liability. Failure to store a gun properly (in a safe, trigger disabled, unloaded, and/or ammunition separate from the gun, for example) would too. Make parents and guardians liable for any actions committed by a minor in their charge. Shooting another hunter while out hunting would get upgraded from sometimes being an accident to always being a crime. Transporting a loaded weapon in your vehicle. Carrying a concealed weapon without a valid permit for it. Basically, accidental discharges would be criminal offenses. Suicides because a handgun wasn’t locked up would make the gun owner criminally liable for the suicide, not as a murderer but maybe as an accessory to manslaughter. Crimes committed by a stolen gun would earn the former owner stiff fines and/or jail time, and so on. And as with gun sellers, I’m sure that there are both devils in the details and additional ways that guns can be misused or mishandled.

Along with these new penalties would come ways to reduce or eliminate legal liability. For gun sellers, securing your inventory with alarms and locked cabinets/cases might reduce their liability. So would running background checks on every customer, all the time, with waiting periods of a day or even a few hours from purchase to taking possession to give a suicidal buyer a chance to make it through their crisis safely. For gun owners, voluntary registration of the gun could reduces some liability. Take more gun safety classes than the minimum, lower your liability. Secure your guns properly and get a certificate of compliance from the police or sheriff, reduce your liability. Report stolen guns promptly, even if you didn’t store your guns securely, and at least you’ll reduce your liability (and if they stole the whole gun safe, you’re probably in the clear). And so on.

I have no illusions that this suggestion would be easy to implement given all the details and competing interests that would want a say. And it’ll be difficult to tell a grieving parent that they’re being charged with a crime for failure to secure the handgun with which that their depressed teenager just committed suicide. But if our goal is to reduce not just mass shootings, but gun violence in all forms, boosting the consequences for failing to control the many guns in our society is a good first step.

I might even go so far as to say that, if you can’t support this kind of legislation, you’re probably not a responsible gun owner.

10 replies »

  1. Not too practical if you follow the precedent this would set through. Every manufacturer would become liable for every misuse of their product. Every citizen would become liable for misuse of anything they had ever purchased whether they still owned it or not.

    If I break in to your house and drink your liquor and then kill your wife and rape your cat, you and the distillery are responsible. If I steal your car and ram a busload of nuns that’s on you and the vehicle manufacturer.

    I think I like the current basis of our legal system much better. Reasonable man doctrine holds the perpetrator responsible for his own actions.

    • I disagree. There is a fundamental difference between a gun and nearly every other product made – guns are weapons, and they’re specifically designed to kill things. So it doesn’t set a precedent for any product that’s not specifically designed as a weapon. And frankly, the lethality of firearms puts them in a weapon category all their own.

      It would be easy enough to write the law in a way that specifically limits the ability for this to set a precedent for any other product.

      Also, you’ll notice I said “gun sellers,” not “gun makers.” I’d be happy to increase the criminal liability to gun makers who sell their products to sloppy retailers, however. Thanks for the idea.

      • Unlike other products guns are designed to kill. Also, unlike other products guns are protected in the Bill of Rights. Additionally, regardless of whether a well regulated militia exists (arguably it does), taking people’s weapons or taxing gun owners into submission is not adhering to the spirit of Liberty. Sounding a call to disarm in the name of safety will be an act in futility; pushing more unconstitutional laws will result in contempt by those who are informed.

        • Axel, don’t get bogged down in my intro. Focus on the meat – my proposed idea for legislation – instead. Is there anything in there that’s fundamentally unconstitutional? I’m not restricting the right to own a gun in any way (with the possible exception of a short waiting period to reduce the availability of guns to the potentially suicidal). Costs will go up slightly to pay for additional background checks and the like, but it’s not like I’m proposing a 1000% tax on ammo (although, if I had the power to ban assault weapons, I’d certainly consider adding this to the list. Yet another reason that you’re probably happy I don’t have this kind of power). Increasing criminal liability does nothing but broaden the penalties for someone misusing a gun or for negligence in controlling a gun.

          There’s not a single right in the Bill of Rights that hasn’t been subject to reasonable limitation. Freedom of speech is subject to libel restrictions. Freedom of assembly is subject to restrictions based on fire safety and the coordination of public spaces. Freedom to own a gun is already subject to limitations based on felony convictions, and it’s not like just anyone is allowed to own an automatic weapon or a functional bazooka.

          And unless you’re OK with the average person owning a functional howitzer (with ammo) or tactical nuke, you’ve already conceded that the 2nd Amendment is subject to reasonable limitation – the only question is where you draw the line on what qualifies as “reasonable.” The fact that “arms” are mentioned explicitly in the Bill or Rights puts them into their own category – and I think that further minimizes Frank’s concerns about setting a bad precedent for other products.

    • Except a), he’s dead, and b) you make it sound like the current system works.

      We have liability processes that work now. I mean, bars can be held liable if they serve you when you’re drunk and you then hurt someone. That has hardly ground the legal system to a halt.

      Ultimately I get sick of hearing how we just can’t fix X. Since when can America not think of a solution? Since when do we have to accept something that literally no other nation on earth has to deal with?

  2. Brian since you didn’t define “gun sellers” it was quite reasonable of me to assume you were inferring the entire supply chain. And feel free to use any of my ideas with the caveat that I disclaim any and all liability for adverse consequences resulting from their use.

    If guns are only designed to kill why do most confrontations with a firearm end with no shots fired? Firearms are a multipurpose tool running the gamut from sports to armed combat.

    Sam, who said we can’t fix X? I just said Brian’s particular plan was fraught with danger because it would set a chilling precedent in commerce. I’m not opposed to further discussions of stricter gun laws. We’ve had universal background checks and 15 round magazine limits in Colorado for several years now. Hasn’t reduced crime but neither has it unduly fettered gun owners.

    • Of course, Frank. I chose “sellers” specifically because I wanted my ideas to include not just retailers, but private sellers as well. In reality, legislation would probably need to call out liabilities, as well as means to avoid it, for owners, retailers, private sellers, and manufacturers separately.

      The reason most confrontations in firearms end with no shots fired is because of the fear of death causes one party or the other to back down, to decide that the risk isn’t worth it. But that doesn’t change that the purpose of the weapon used is to kill. After all, if a gun wasn’t designed to to kill, then it wouldn’t present a valid threat of injury or death, and the confrontation would have ended differently. And if you can make a target sport weapon safe enough that it can’t kill someone, then I’d be fine with exempting sales of such a weapon from this legislation. But I doubt you can, just because guns, by their nature, impart a small projectile with dangerous amounts of kinetic energy.

      These are all details that I think are reasonable debating points for the legislation I’m proposing, and I’m sure that there would be aspects to the final law that I would disagree with. But I don’t think that you’ve presented any deal killers thus far, rather some legislative shoals that have to be carefully navigated in the process of drawing up the legislation.

  3. Rather than make the prior owner or seller of a gun used to commit gun violence criminally liable make the person civilly liable. The result will be an increase in gun prices commensurate with the harm they cause, less guns in the marketplace, and more responsible owners and sellers of guns. Victims and their attorneys would enforce the law. Victims would be compensated unlike the current situation. See: