Major sections of a Democratic measure making it easier to sue the firearm industry in Colorado were removed from the bill last week in an early-morning committee meeting at the behest of Gov. Jared Polis.
Rules intended to further require gun sellers to block children and criminals from obtaining weapons were stripped from the legislation, as was a provision forcing the industry to take steps to prevent people intent on harming themselves or others from buying weapons. Instead, the bill would govern the industry under the same laws that apply to all other businesses in the state.
The amendments to Senate Bill 168, part of a package of gun bills brought by Democrats this year, were made by an ad hoc panel of three senators and three representatives, called a conference committee, that was created to reconcile amendments made in the House and Senate to the measure. But instead, the legislation was changed in a more significant way, including to remove a section requiring the gun industry to adhere to a so-called code of conduct specific to firearms sellers and manufacturers.
The code would have required the industry to:
- “Take reasonable precautions” to ensure its products aren’t sold to a retailer that “fails to establish and implement reasonable controls”
- Not manufacture and market products that can be easily modified into something illegal or something that is targeted toward minors or people who are barred from purchasing a gun. It’s already a crime to sell a gun to someone who is prohibited from possessing a firearm, including people younger than 18, and people convicted of certain felonies.
Alternatively, the gun industry would be required under the bill to adhere to the Colorado Consumer Protection Act, the catchall law governing businesses. It prohibits businesses from engaging in false or misleading advertising and/or fraudulent business practices.
“We were designing a code of conduct to be specific to the firearm industry,” said Sen. Sonya Jaquez Lewis, a Boulder County Democrat. “The governor wanted the code of conduct to be more like (what it is for) a general business. We’re fine with that.”
Jaquez Lewis said the bill would match the policy in Colorado to a court precedent in Connecticut under which survivors of those killed in the Sandy Hook school massacre were able to sue the manufacturer of the rifle used in that mass shooting.
Additionally, sections of Senate Bill 168 defining firearm traffickers and straw purchases were removed, as was a major provision requiring the gun industry to take precautions against selling products to a person who they have a “reasonable cause to believe is at a substantial risk of using a firearm industry product to harm themselves or unlawfully harm another.”
“I liked the original version of the bill, but I don’t think the amendment substantially weakens it,” said Rep. Javier Mabrey, a Denver Democrat and another prime sponsor of the bill.
Polis’ office confirmed that it influenced the amendments to the measure. “The governor and his team worked with the legislature to make changes to the bill to ensure it would be more effectively implemented and help protect more Coloradans from gun violence,” said Conor Cahill, a Polis spokesman. “The bill sets forth clear expectations to follow and allows civil actions for violations of certain state laws.”
“It looks like we took a lot out,” Jaquez Lewis said, but she argued that the measure still has plenty of teeth.
For one, it removes a provision in law automatically forcing plaintiffs to pay attorneys’ fees to the gun industry in lawsuits that are dismissed. It also would still remove a restriction that limits lawsuits against gun sellers and manufacturers to circumstances in which there is a product defect.
Colorado’s existing law around suing the gun industry, passed in 2000 by the GOP-controlled legislature and signed by the Republican governor, says people can only bring a “product liability action against a firearms or ammunition manufacturer, importer or dealer.” Lawsuits “arising from physical or emotional injury, physical damage or death caused by the discharge of a firearm or ammunition” are not allowed, and gun businesses cannot be “held liable as a third party for the actions of another person.”
Without the restriction, proponents of the measure say, victims of gun violence would have an easier time filing lawsuits related to violations of Colorado’s firearm regulations, like those around magazine size limits and background checks.
As for how the changes were made, Jaquez Lewis said Democrats were trying to act quickly so that all four bills in their package of measures this year more strictly regulating guns can be signed into law together later this month.
Three other Democratic bills adding new gun regulations are still in the legislative process or are awaiting the governor’s signature.
Senate Bill 169, which would raise the minimum age to purchase all guns to 21, has been approved by the legislature is en route to the Polis’ desk, as is Senate Bill 170, which would expand Colorado’s so-called red flag law to let teachers, prosecutors and medical professionals also petition a judge to order the temporary seizure of someone’s guns.
Senate amendments to House Bill 1219, which would impose a three-day waiting period for gun purchases, were approved Tuesday by the House, advancing the measure to the governor’s desk, too.
Democrats in the legislature are also expected as soon as this week to introduce a fifth bill, which would ban the manufacturing and ownership of so-called ghost guns, which are homemade weapons that can’t be traced because they don’t have serial numbers.
Giffords, a group that advocates for tighter gun restrictions and is named after former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, an Arizona Democrat wounded in a mass shooting, helped write Senate Bill 168. Ari Freilich, state policy director for the organization, said the amended version of the bill is narrower than what was introduced and what has been enacted in other states.
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“We were actively involved in shaping this final language and are confident that this amended bill will meaningfully reform victims’ rights in Colorado,” he said. “While the amended version is short of all we originally hoped for, it preserves the same vital framework as the original version and would be a game-changer for victims’ access to justice and safer industry incentives in Colorado.”
Freilich said while the gun industry is already in theory required to follow the Consumer Protection Act, the way state and federal law is currently written they are “basically exempt from accountability.”
The bill is awaiting final approval in the Senate. The House repassed Senate Bill 168 on Tuesday.