It has been nearly four years since a gunman entered the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, killing twenty-six parishioners and injuring twenty more. It appeared the gunman was attempting to continue his spree at a church across the street when a law-abiding citizen shot the man, ending his reign of terror. This many years later, the tragic incident is back in the news, as the Texas Supreme Court has just issued a ruling of first impression stemming from this case.
Several months before the shooting, the gunman purchased the rifle used from an Academy store in San Antonio, TX. This rifle in question, manufactured by Magpul Industries Corp., was packaged with an accompanying thirty-round magazine. The gunman reported a Colorado address on his ATF Form 4473 and presented a Colorado ID. Academy ran a background check through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (“NICS”), and received a “proceed” response from the FBI, allowing them to lawfully sell the weapon. Unbeknownst to Academy, the gunman lied on his ATF Form 4473. At the time of purchase, he was not qualified to purchase or possess firearms under federal law because he had been court-martialed for assaulting his wife and stepson while in the United States Air Force, and subsequently dishonorably discharged. The federal government failed to upload this data to the NICS system, hence the “proceed” response after running the gunman’s background check.
The victims’ families filed a flurry of lawsuits after the incident. Several of these suits were filed against Academy for its role in the sale of the murder weapon. Academy responded to these suits by alleging it was protected from liability under the federal law known as the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (“PLCAA”).
What is the PLCAA?
In 2005, Congress passed a law to protect firearms retailers and manufacturers from being sued for the criminal acts of persons who use firearms to harm others. The basic idea is this: the companies who build or sell firearms should not fear that they will be held liable for a bad person who happens to use the product in a terrible way. The PLCAA does not offer absolute protection, however, and the plaintiffs in this case assert two of the exceptions to the PLCAA: 1) a seller’s knowing violation of law; and 2) a seller’s negligent entrustment of property.
Did Academy Knowingly Violate the Law?
How did the gunman walk into a Texas gun store with a Colorado driver’s license and make a legal purchase? Though interstate firearms transactions are highly regulated, it is legal for an out-of-state resident to make an in-person purchase of a long gun from a Federal Firearms Licensed (“FFL”) dealer. The FFL, however, must fully comply with the legal conditions of sale in both the purchaser and seller states. For example, if a Texas gun store were to sell a long gun in-person to a California resident, that Texas store would need to be certain that they were complying with California law as it pertains to “assault rifles.” Colorado, with certain exceptions, bans the sale of magazines which have the capacity to accept more than 15 rounds of ammunition. So, although in this instance the rifle was legal under both Colorado and Texas law, the accompanying 30-round magazine was not. In interpreting the law in this case, the Texas Supreme Court determined that the magazine was not part of the sale of the rifle as defined by the Gun Control Act. Therefore, Academy did not violate the law and does not fall into this exemption under the PLCAA.
Did Academy Negligently Entrust the Firearm?
In short, the Court held no. Though plaintiffs allege that Academy should have known that the buyer was likely to use the firearm in a manner that would cause unreasonable risk of physical injury to others, the Court quickly dismissed this allegation. Texas law does not allow a claim for negligent entrustment for the sale of property. Therefore, if a private party lends or loans a firearm knowing that the person was likely to use it in a manner that would cause unreasonable risk of physical injury to others, a negligent entrustment claim applies; but this common law claim does not apply to a retailer making a lawful sale. Thus, the second prong of the plaintiff’s attack on Academy also failed at the Texas Supreme Court level.
This is a remarkable case in the firearms world—it is the first time the Texas Supreme Court has interpreted the PLCAA. The Supreme Court of the United States (“SCOTUS”) has never interpreted the PLCAA. This case had, and still has, the potential to change the entire landscape of mass-shooter lawsuits in the United States. Though the Texas Supreme Court’s decision is favorable to the firearms industry because it bolsters and reaffirms the protections of the PLCAA, it is highly likely we see an appeal of this case to the United States Supreme Court. Will SCOTUS take up this novel issue? Stay tuned.
Author: Emily William Taylor
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