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Politics & Government

Bill in California would allow lawsuits for marketing guns to kids

052622-JR-15-CM-01.jpg
Screenshot via YouTube
WEE1 Tactical claims their JR-15 .22 caliber long rifle is 20% smaller than a traditional AR-15.

A proposed California law that is part of a larger package of gun control bills would allow the attorney general to sue gun manufacturers over marketing practices.

The man at the gun show lifted a 2.2 pound rifle and pulled back the stock with an audible “chock,” presenting it to the YouTube segment’s host.

“When we set out to produce a small firearm for children in an AR-looking package, we were pretty sure we needed to have a ‘wow factor’ in the safety area,” Eric Schmid, owner of Wee 1 Tactical, said in a video uploaded in January.

What Utah-based Wee 1 Tactical produced was a smaller model of the AR-15, called the JR-15. Schmid was in Las Vegas in January to promote the smaller weapon, which the company pledges will look and feel “just like Mom and Dad’s gun.”

Schmid demonstrated a safety pin intended to keep the weapon’s trigger locked. He and the host noted that it would likely prevent small children from operating a firearm without their parents present.

“It takes a lot of tension to be able to pull that out,” said host Barret Kendrick.

“Your 12-year-olds are gonna unlock it really quickly,” Schmid replied.

A bill that passed out of the Assembly on Thursday night would make the marketing of firearms to children and those not legally allowed to possess them a civil liability. AB 1594 would allow lawsuits against gun manufacturers based on their marketing, one of the few exemptions to a federal ban on such lawsuits. The bill is now in the hands of the Senate.

Brought by San Francisco Democrat Phil Ting, the bill is an attempt to ensure that gun manufacturers can’t object in state court to lawsuits that target their marketing – an argument Smith & Wesson made in a San Diego court last year.

The proposal is similar to a bill passed last year in New York – one that survived a legal challenge from guns rights advocates in federal court on Wednesday.

“Unfortunately, it seems like not a day goes by before there’s another tragic mass shooting,” Ting said. “We have guns in the hands of the wrong people and we have an industry that takes no responsibility for empowering killers in our community.”

The bill alleges that some gun manufacturers market and sell “increasingly dangerous new products,” from ghost guns to bump stocks, which give them an unfair business advantage over “more responsible competitors.” If passed, the bill would allow the Department of Justice, county attorneys, city attorneys and the public to sue over those practices.

Among the practices singled out in the bill are:

  • Manufacturers that produce guns with features “most suitable for assaultive purposes” rather than hunting or self-defense. 
  • Guns designed, sold or marketed in a way that “foreseeably promotes” their conversion into an illegal weapon, such as turning a semi-automatic weapon into a fully automatic weapon.
  • Guns designed, sold or marketed to children or people who are legally prohibited from possessing firearms. 

The bill is part of a larger wave of more than a dozen gun control laws proposed by California Democrats ahead of today’s deadline to move bills from their house of origin.

On Wednesday, one day after a man killed at least 21 people with an AR-15 in a shooting at a Texas elementary school, Gov. Gavin Newsom singled out some gun marketing tactics at a press conference rallying support for AB 1594 and other gun control measures.

“You’ve got folks out there manufacturing and marketing an AR-15 for babies. For babies,” Newsom said. “And their logo is a pacifier with the baby AR-15. These are extremists. They need to be called out.”

Newsom seemed to be talking about the JR-15 and Wee 1 Tactical’s logo, which is two skulls with a target in one eye and a pacifier in each mouth. One skull has a mohawk and the other has pigtails.

Lawsuits against gun manufacturers are prohibited by the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, a 2005 law that the NRA said at the time was “the most significant piece of pro-gun legislation in twenty years.”

052622-WEE1-Tactical-CM-01.jpg
A portion of a WEE1 Tactical press release.

President Joe Biden has said repealing the law is among his administration’s top priorities, though his Justice Department continues to defend the legislation in court.

The federal law allowed for six exceptions in which lawsuits are allowable against gun manufacturers. One of them is for manufacturers who violate state or federal laws governing the marketing or sales of guns.

The marketing exception to the law allowed parents of children killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre to successfully sue Remington Arms last year. A state lawsuit in San Diego after a 2019 shooting was allowed to proceed last year on the same basis.

The survivors of the shooting at a San Diego area synagogue argued that Smith & Wesson used marketing “that attracted impulsive young men with military complexes who were particularly likely to be attracted to the unique ability of AR-15 style weapons.”

Smith & Wesson responded that the federal law shielded them from such lawsuits, but a San Diego County Superior Court judge disagreed, citing the marketing exception.

Michael Schwartz, executive director of San Diego County Gun Owners, said the bill and others brought forward by Democrats this session are a threat to gun ownership rights throughout California.

“If fully realized and implemented, it’s an enormous threat to gun rights,” Schwartz said. “There’s no way to stop anyone from using a product illegally. But you wouldn’t sue Ford for someone drinking and driving.”

When it comes to the JR-15, singled out by Newsom, Schwartz said marketing is still directed to the people who can purchase the guns, the parents. And, he said, previous laws around regulating the marketing of age-limited products like tobacco don’t apply to guns.

“I don’t know what the perceived fear is, but I’m not afraid that kids are gonna get addicted to an AR-15,” Schwartz said. “It’s the most popular long gun in the United States because it functions in all kinds of situations.”

CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.