Gun makers and dealers in California will be required to block firearms sales to anyone they have “reasonable cause to believe is at substantial risk” of using a gun illegally or of harming themselves or others, under a new law that Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Tuesday that he had signed.
It’s a subjective requirement that goes farther than current background checks or prohibitions on selling guns to people prohibited from owning them.
The regulation is part of the new law creating a good conduct code for gun makers and dealers that also allows anyone who suffers harm from violations to sue.
The bill was one of more than a dozen adding to California’s already strict gun regulations that were sent to Newsom, a Democrat, by state lawmakers before they left for their monthlong summer recess.
The National Rifle Association said the requirements are vague and represent an attempt to hold gun dealers and makers liable for the actions of others. The new law, the group said, “seeks to frustrate law-abiding gun owners” with the goal of driving gun makers and dealers “out of business with frivolous litigation.”
The state’s firearm industry standard of conduct, starting in July 2023, will require those making, importing or selling guns to “take reasonable precautions” to make sure the weapons don’t fall into the wrong hands through sales or thefts.
That includes having “reasonable controls” to prevent sales to arms traffickers, straw buyers, those prohibited from owning guns, and anyone deemed to be at “substantial risk” of using the gun improperly.
The law is patterned after a New York measure that took effect last year to skirt a 2005 federal law blocking most liability lawsuits against gun-makers or dealers.
The New York measure declared such violations a “public nuisance,” taking advantage of a federal exemption that allows lawsuits when gun makers break state or local laws regulating the sale and marketing of firearms.
Delaware and New Jersey just enacted similar laws, and all contain provisions requiring firearms dealers to act responsibly, said Tanya Schardt, senior counsel and director of state and federal policy at the Brady gun control advocacy organization that sought the laws.
“There may be indicators or things that you see beyond just passing the background check that indicate to the dealer that they shouldn’t sell the gun,” she said.
“I would say the California law is more specific,” Schardt said. “But substantively I think it creates the same set of requirements, the same standards with regards to engaging in safe business practices.”
“It’s not asking someone to be psychic,” she added, but to take reasonable precautions in the same way that an automobile dealer could be liable for selling to a customer who is clearly drunk, for instance.
“It’s not creating liability, it’s not expanding liability beyond what’s reasonable … which is really the same standard that every other industry is measured against,” she said.
A federal judge in May rejected a challenge to the New York law by gun manufacturers and sellers.
Sam Paredes, executive director of Gun Owners of California, expects the California law will be challenged on the argument that it violates the federal law.
“The ability to be sued for doing something bad is already there,” he said, noting that gun makers and dealers are liable for any illegal activity. “This is the anti-gun side’s way of looking for a deep pocket.”
The law will allow the California attorney general, city and county attorneys and victims of gun code of conduct violations to sue gun retailers or manufacturers for civil damages.
“Nearly every industry is held liable when their products case harm or injury. All except one — the gun industry,” Newsom said in a video Tuesday announcing that he had signed the bill on Monday.
With the new law, he said, “gun makers will finally be held to account for their role in this crisis.”
California’s law allows gun makers and dealers to also be sued for alleged violations of other laws, including false advertising, unfair competition or deceptive acts or practices.
“Hitting their bottom line may finally compel them to step up to reduce gun violence by preventing illegal sales and theft,” said the bill’s author, Democratic Assemblyman Phil Ting.
The law will also prohibit manufacturers and retailers from making, importing or selling guns or related products that are “abnormally dangerous and likely to create an unreasonable risk of harm.”
That could include kits for building untraceable “ ghost guns,” “ bump stocks ” that increase the rate of fire for semi-automatic weapons, or “ bullet button ” assault weapons that allow for rapid reloading.