Maine considers joining other states to allow lawsuits against gunmakers

Gun Rights

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine lawmakers are set to consider gun-control proposals in the wake of the October mass shooting in Lewiston, including one that would let Mainers sue the gun industry over injuries from illegal firearm sales.

Rep. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, had introduced the bill last April, about six months before the Oct. 25 mass shooting at a Lewiston bowling alley and bar that left 18 dead and 13 injured. The measure was carried over to 2024 and now has additional importance following Maine’s deadliest mass shooting on record.

It was the subject of contention between groups on both sides of the gun debate last year. The newly updated measure was scheduled to be the first one up for debate this year, though the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee called a hearing on it off due to snow on Tuesday afternoon.

Millett’s bill has several Democratic cosponsors and the support of gun-control advocacy groups such as Moms Demand Action. A National Rifle Association leader argued last year that it “would shut down firearm commerce in Maine overnight.”

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Under the proposal, Maine would join eight states including Colorado and New York that have enacted laws since 2021 allowing lawsuits against the firearm industry for illegal conduct, per the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Millett’s bill would allow people injured by guns to sue companies whose products are sold and marketed to promote illegal modifications or target minors and others prohibited from possessing firearms. It would also prohibit firearm industry members from selling or marketing products in “unconscionable, unscrupulous, oppressive or deceptive” manners.

The new version of the bill removed language in an initial version aimed at “abnormally dangerous” firearms and outlawing the marketing of weapons “most suitable for assaultive purposes” instead of self-defense, hunting or other legal activities.

Items regulated under the bill would be guns, ammunition, magazines, components or parts, including receivers and accessories. Firearm industry members, such as manufacturers, sellers and importers, would have to enforce “reasonable controls” to prevent theft and the distribution of their guns to people prohibited from possessing weapons.

People harmed by guns sold or marketed in illegal manners under the bill could sue companies to seek damages in court, and the Maine attorney general could also sue violators who would face penalties between $25,000 to $100,000.

People could not sue if they were injured while committing a crime or if they intentionally or “recklessly” inflicted self-harm. Millett said last year her bill is not meant to “villainize the entire firearms industry, or to suggest that anyone who sells a gun can be sued.”

“This is an intentionally particular bill that specifically targets manufacturers who are knowingly endangering the public by selling exceptionally dangerous guns,” Millett testified last May.

While Congress outlawed most lawsuits against gunmakers under 2005 legislation, Millett and gun-control advocates noted states can pass laws to allow civil action against manufacturers who knowingly endanger the public through irresponsible policies.

But Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine Executive Director David Trahan criticized Millett’s initial bill as the “holy grail” for gun-control supporters and a “lawyer’s dream come true.” Before the amendment removed the “assaultive” language, National Rifle Association State Director Justin Davis argued any gun could be deemed so.

“This liability would be an unfair and egregious overstep … and would shut down firearm commerce in Maine overnight,” Davis testified last year.

Gun-control advocates have called for the Democratic-controlled Legislature to pass other sweeping measures in response to the Lewiston mass shooting, including an assault-style weapons ban, a “red flag” law instead of Maine’s existing “yellow flag” law and universal background checks. Numerous Lewiston shooting reviews are taking place, and police have not confirmed where and how the gunman obtained the weapons he used during the rampage.

It remains unclear which proposals could gain momentum during the shortened session scheduled to end in April, and past gun-control efforts have failed after facing opposition from Gov. Janet Mills and voters in a state with a strong hunting culture.

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