Legislature(1999 - 2000)
03/16/1999 08:05 AM House CRA
* first hearing in first committee of referral
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
HB 103-LIABILITY RELATING TO FIREARMS Number 0047 CO-CHAIRMAN HARRIS announced the first order of business before the committee would be HOUSE BILL NO. 103, "An Act relating to civil actions by municipalities and certain public corporations and prohibiting certain civil actions by them against firearms or ammunition manufacturers and dealers." REPRESENTATIVE DYSON, Sponsor of HB 103, informed the committee that HB 103 is a companion to SB 77, sponsored by Senator Pete Kelly. Representative Dyson pointed out that Victor Gunn, staff to Senator Pete Kelly, was present. REPRESENTATIVE DYSON believed there to be two issues at hand. There appears to be a concerted effort from those who have an inherent distaste for firearms to punish the industry, thereby limiting the accessibility of firearms through liability suits. Such liability suits attempt to financially punish the manufacturers and distributors of firearms for the misuse of firearms. This bill, HB 103, would prohibit Alaskan political subdivisions from prosecuting suits for the misuse of legally manufactured and distributed firearms. The bill does not prohibit manufacturers from being sued for manufacturing defects and such of the weapons themselves. Number 0272 REPRESENTATIVE DYSON identified the other issue at hand as liability itself. The misuse of any manufactured implement is the responsibility of the person misusing the implement not the manufacturer. He discussed the time his wife was on a jury in which the manufacturer/distributor of a snow machine was being sued by an individual hurt when a belt broke. The snow machine owner testified in court that he had not maintained the snow machine for four years, had taken the belt guard and cowling off, and was racing the snow machine. Initially, Representative Dyson's wife was the only juror who did not want to rule in favor of the injured individual. Three or so days later, the jury did not award the injured individual anything because this was not the manufacturer's fault but rather the individual's misuse of the product. REPRESENTATIVE DYSON believed that everyone should be held accountable for their actions. Manufacturers should be held accountable for the production of inferior or unsafe items, but should not be held accountable for the misuse of items. Representative Dyson noted that firearms, as far as he knew, were the only manufactured item that enjoys some constitutional protection. Therefore, more care should be taken in the treatment of firearms. He informed the committee that SB 77 had been amended and those amendments should be before the committee. The Senate amendments expand the bill to include the State of Alaska as a party that could not bring forth such suits. Number 0542 VICTOR GUNN, Legislative Administrative Assistant for Senator Pete Kelly, Alaska State Legislature, supported HB 103. As Representative Dyson said, cities are taking firearm manufacturers to court to hold them responsible for the violence in the city. Mr. Gunn stated that cities claim that firearm manufacturers have conspired to flood the market knowing the guns will reach those cities with strict gun laws via the black market. Furthermore, the manufacturers are allegedly manufacturing more powerful firearms in order to increase sales. Both HB 103 and SB 77 are in response to lawsuits brought forth by municipalities against gun manufacturers in order that the municipality can recoup its damages from the illegal use of products. Mr. Gunn said, "They were emboldened by recent tobacco settlements where municipalities are now thinking they can attempt to supplement their general funds by lawsuits directed at the deep pocket of gun manufacturers. A product that they consider politically uncorrect." Unlike tobacco companies, firearm manufacturers do not deny that they manufacture a deadly product. Mr. Gunn indicated that people illegally using firearms are not being held responsible. MR. GUNN said that a group of lawyers, successful in the tobacco suits, have persuaded the mayors of several large cities to go after the firearm industry. The aim is to bankrupt the firearm companies by suing for medical costs and monetary damages of gun-related crime. Such lawsuits circumvent the constitutional limits as well as democratic debate. Mr. Gunn stated, "The gun control movement thinks it can win without passing laws or winning elections. By using litigation to raise prices and drive manufacturers out of business, the gun controllers can reduce the access to firearms without confronting the Second Amendment." He indicated the clear intent is to utilize the courts to accomplish what the anti-gun lobbyists have not been able to accomplish in the federal and state legislatures. "This clear abuse of tort liability system seeks to use potentially bankrupting lawsuits to force makers of a legal, but politically incorrect product, to quit manufacturing." Number 0812 MR. GUNN clarified that the intent of the legislation is not to prevent bringing an action for product liability for a defective product. Firearm manufacturing is a legal enterprise that produces quality products that are lawfully and safely used by thousands of Alaskans for various activities. Mr. Gunn said that Bill Reuger, Jr. had commented that it is easier to blame the firearm manufacturer than have people take responsibility for their actions. The Reuger company motto has been, "Arms maker for responsible citizens." Mr. Gunn informed the committee that the American Firearms Council conducted a nationwide survey of registered voters which found that 92 percent of registered voters polled did not believe cities or states should sue firearm manufacturers as a means to stop violence. The survey also found that 67 percent of the voters polled believe that enforcing current laws against the use of a firearm is more effective in addressing criminal violence than limiting the number of firearms an individual can purchase. He noted that the Public Opinion Strategy of Alexandria, Virginia conducted the survey in October 1998 which polled 800 registered voters nationwide with a margin of error of plus or minus three percent. MR. GUNN mentioned that blaming gun manufacturers for firearm-related crime is somewhat of a novel theory. This would be similar to attaching blame to an automobile manufacturer when an individual drives an automobile while intoxicated and kills someone. He asked, "What's next?" One professor's report documented that firearms were used safely over 2 million times to defend lives nationwide. Further, one-tenth of one percent of firearms are used in any given year to commit armed crime. The criminal use of firearms should be addressed by state and federal legislatures, not the manufacturers of a legal product. Number 1059 REPRESENTATIVE MURKOWSKI referred to the CSSB 77(JUD) when she inquired as to, "...why they have removed it from the section relating to municipalities, public corporations to its own subsection." MR. GUNN explained that the Senate committee felt it important to include individuals and the state in SB 77, which the CS accomplishes. REPRESENTATIVE MURKOWSKI agreed with Mr. Gunn's earlier statements. She commented that with regard to Mr. Gunn's question about what would be next, Representative Murkowski hoped that the legislature will not have to address this by statute; hopefully this will not be the first of many statutes in an effort to end what some feel are frivolous lawsuits. MR. GUNN commented that from the information he has garnered there is no "smoking gun" in this legislation. Unlike the tobacco industry, which was viewed as deceiving the public there was a "smoking gun." No one has proven that the firearm industry has flooded the market with firearms knowing the firearms will move into cities with stricter firearm control laws. Mr. Gunn explained that the firearm industry sells firearms to legal dealers who in turn sell firearms to individuals. What an individual does with the firearm after purchasing it is unknown. He reiterated his statements regarding the claims cities have made against the firearm industry. Any firearm is a potentially fatal item in the hands of an irresponsible individual. Mr. Gunn emphasized that everyone should remember that millions of individuals have survived and prevented attacks and assaults on their person due to the presence of a firearm. The firearm industry should be protected. CO-CHAIRMAN HARRIS referred to Section 2(b) which would cover liability issues regarding the manufacture of unsafe or damaged firearms. MR. GUNN informed the committee of his law enforcement background. He reiterated that the legislation does not intend to prevent damages being sought for the manufacture of products not up to par. Number 1422 DAVID KELLEYHOUSE, Alaska Outdoor Council (AOC), informed the committee that AOC is the state affiliate of the National Rifle Association (NRA). Mr. Kelleyhouse supported HB 103. He reiterated Mr. Gunn's comments regarding the correlation between the tobacco industry lawsuits and the flurry of lawsuits brought against the firearms industry. He indicated that any industry with deep pockets that is considered "politically incorrect" at the moment would be in jeopardy. MR. KELLEYHOUSE said that AOC feels the current litigation to be a direct threat to Second Amendment rights. If substantial judgements are levied against firearm manufacturers, the manufacturer will become bankrupt or the price of weapons will increase by a considerable amount, placing weapons out of reach to the average American citizen. MR. KELLEYHOUSE informed the committee that he served as the Director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation under the previous administration. He noted that Alaska receives $7 to $10 million a year in federal matching funds for wildlife conservation as a result of the Federal Aid and Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937, the Pitman-Robertson Funds. Those funds come from the 11 percent excise tax on firearm manufacturers which is distributed to all state wildlife agencies. This funding has been the backbone of conservation funding throughout the U.S. since 1937. Mr. Kelleyhouse pointed out that if firearm manufacturers go bankrupt or if there is an extreme increase in the price of firearms, the funding for state conservation and wildlife programs would be strangled. Mr. Kelleyhouse stated, "No manufacturer should be held responsible for the irresponsible or illegal use of its products. There's scarcely a product in society today that could not be injurious if misused, it's a matter of taking personal responsibility for one's own actions. So, litigation against the manufacturers of goods should not be viewed as a shortcut for local governments to swell their coffers and shift blame for social problems. Used legally, in the shooting sports, firearms are among the safest of all products. Consider that statistically, hunting and target shooting are more safe than football, bowling, or even badminton. It's seven injuries per 100,000 participants." MR. KELLEYHOUSE noted that he was involved in law enforcement for 20 years and a game biologist. He informed the committee that one of the demands he has heard is for the firearm industry to make a firearm specific to one individual owner. Mr. Kelleyhouse pointed out that in two instances that he had to use a firearm to save the life of another, he had to use another person's firearm. Therefore, to make firearms useful to only one individual does not make sense. Mr. Kelleyhouse said that the AOC and the NRA urge the committee to adopt HB 103. Number 1738 MIKE COONS, Paramedic, NRA member, testified via teleconference from Palmer. He asked if the SB 77 amendment, prohibiting the state or state agents to bring such a suit, will be included in HB 103. CO-CHAIRMAN HARRIS said not at this time. MR. COONS noted that he had sent Co-Chairman Halcro and Harris e-mails regarding this issue. Mr. Coons stated that HB 103 seems to only address cities and boroughs. The language does not prohibit states or agents of the state from filing frivolous lawsuits against firearm manufacturers. He did not have a problem with true product liability suits or breech of contract. Mr. Coons felt that using only the Georgia law as a blueprint would be ignoring the corrections other states have made in similar legislation. Texas and Florida are stopping such suits from the Governor's mansion on down. As long as it is possible to have an anti-gun governor and an appointed state attorney general, the prohibitive language for states and state agents must be included. Mr. Coons cited fairness as another issue. He said, "The political subdivisions have every right to yell 'foul' that...they are being told what not to do, but the state isn't willing to put the same restrictions on itself." Mr. Coons urged the committee to amend HB 103 to include language pertaining to the state as well as agents of the state. Number 1901 MR. COONS said that in an e-mail to the committee and Representative Dyson, Mr. Coons encouraged an amendment fashioned after language in Florida's legislation. Mr. Coons informed the committee that Representative Dyson had expressed concern that the amendment could prohibit HB 103 from passing out of the House of Representatives. Mr. Coons noted that Senator Pete Kelly indicated that he was considering an amendment which would make violations of this law a civil action against the violator. Mr. Coons reiterated his preference for language similar to that in Florida's law in order to make any state agent have second thoughts about challenging this law. Mr. Coons said that he would agree to a compromise with the civil action, if the consequences for violation of this law were punitive enough to strongly discourage such action. He informed the committee that the Mayor of Atlanta, Georgia was going forward with a suit against a firearm manufacturer. Although Georgia has a law prohibiting such, there are no meaningful ramifications. MR. COONS stated that Internet polls by CNN and ABC respectively report that respondents against such suits range between 75 to 90 percent. He noted that the last time he checked, the CNN poll had received almost 100,000 respondents and the ABC poll had received about 50,000 respondents. Mr. Coons emphasized that all industries are open to such suits. He informed the committee of a report aired on the Rush Limbaugh show about a report which concluded smoking during pregnancy results in the baby becoming a criminal which he felt illustrated the craziness of such litigation. In closing, Mr. Coons encouraged the passage of HB 103 and SB 77. REPRESENTATIVE DYSON thanked Mr. Coons for his interest as well as the information he has supplied on this issue. Representative Dyson announced his intention to continue to work with Senator Pete Kelly and have these two bills become similar, if not exactly the same. Representative Dyson indicated that amendments will be made in both bodies as the bills move through the committee process. MR. COONS appreciated all the work on this issue. He mentioned that Senator Pete Kelly was on NRA Live last week. Number 2085 CO-CHAIRMAN HALCRO asked if Representative Dyson would approve of adopting CSSB 77(JUD), Version LS0463\I, Ford, 3/15/99, and reporting that out of committee as the CS from the House Community & Regional Affairs committee. Co-Chairman Halcro believed that the Senate Judiciary CS does a better job of covering everyone, including state agencies and municipalities. Co-Chairman Halcro pointed out that the CSSB 77(JUD) includes everything in HB 103, but the language is a bit broader. REPRESENTATIVE DYSON said he would be pleased with the substitution. The committee took an at-ease from 8:36 a.m. to 8:37 a.m. Number 2212 CO-CHAIRMAN HALCRO moved that the wording from the CSSB 77(JUD) be considered as the content of the amended HB 103. There being no objection, it was so ordered. CO-CHAIRMAN HALCRO moved to report CSHB 103, Version LS0463\I, Ford, 3/15/99, out of committee with individual recommendations and the accompanying zero fiscal note. There being no objection, it was so ordered. The committee took an at-ease from 8:40 a.m. to 8:42 a.m.