PASADENA, Calif. (CBS/AP) - Can gunmakers be held liable for murders involving their weapons? That was the question put to a federal appeals court. The answer for two American firms is no, but the court left the question open for a Chinese company.
A federal appeals court rejected a lawsuit against gunmaker Glock Inc. and a Seattle gun dealer stemming from a white supremacist's 1999 shooting rampage at a Los Angeles Jewish center and the murder of a postal carrier.
A 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' panel ruled Monday that a 2005 federal law shielding gunmakers from lawsuits over criminal use of their products was constitutional.
On Aug. 10, 1999, white supremacist Buford Furrow of Olympia, Wash., wounded three little children, a teenager and an adult at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills. He later killed letter carrier Joseph S. Ileto. Authorities said he was carrying at least seven firearms, which he possessed illegally.
Furrow pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty and is serving five life terms in prison.
Relatives of the victims sued Georgia-based Glock Inc., dealer RSR Wholesale Guns Seattle and a Chinese manufacturer, claiming they were liable for negligence. Their lawsuit alleges that the companies intentionally produce, market, distribute and sell more firearms than the legitimate market demands in order to take advantage of re-sales to distributors that they know will subsequently sell to illegal buyers.
The plaintiffs say Furrow fired a Glock weapon at the children, and a China North Industries Corp. weapon to kill Ileto.
The lawsuit was initially filed in state court, but was removed to federal court by China North. In 2002, the federal court dismissed the lawsuit for failure to state a claim under California law. A year later, a 9th Circuit panel reversed that federal court decision and allowed trial to proceed. Before the case could be argued, Congress passed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which protects arms companies from such suits and ordered dismissal of pending claims.
Glock, RSR and China North sought to dismiss the lawsuit by arguing the federal law applied to the case. A federal judge ruled that Glock and RSR were immune from prosecution, but that the case against China North can proceed because the company is not a federally licensed gunmaker.
The plaintiffs and China North appealed, and Monday's 2-1 decision upheld the judge's ruling.
China North has insisted throughout the case that the weapons used by Furrow weren't provided by the company. An attorney for the Beijing-based company said the ruling could result in a reprieve for his client.
By affirming that the 2005 law protects suppliers, the court has established that manufacturers can't be sued "on the theory that they were negligent in the way they sold these weapons," attorney Charles H. Dick said.
An attorney who argued for the shooting victim says her clients have not decided whether to continue pursuing the case. Sayre Weaver said she was troubled by the federal law, calling it "special interest legislation" that contradicts state tort law designed to protect citizens.
"The law takes tort victims who have claims under state law and says 'You're just like every other tort victims but you can't sue this group of defendants,"' Weaver said. "It's Congress saying, 'Because it happens your claims are against a gun manufacturer, you're out of court, you're out of luck.' That's a very scary thing."
The case was argued at the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit's Pasadena courthouse.