In almost any mass shooting involving an assault-style weapon in this country, there are varying levels of moral culpability. The first and most obvious is the culpability of the shooter himself (they are almost always men), who consciously chooses to make use of that weapon for its intended purpose by killing one, two, or sometimes scores of human beings. His culpability is not only moral, but legal, and as a result, he is the one who faces consequences for his actions.
The second, more indirect culpability is shared by the manufacturer and seller of the weapon itself. These parties, of course, argue that they are not culpable at all—that they, in fact, are simply taking advantage of the laws as they are written—and bear no responsibility when their products are used as intended (to kill people). Because, in most cases, they cannot legally be held liable, they indignantly insist that they bear no moral culpability for such shootings.
The third morally culpable party is the legal structure or system that permits those sellers and manufacturers to sell their lethal products more or less with impunity, i.e., without fear of reprisal, legal restrictions, or consequences. At the pinnacle of that legal framework sits the conservative majority currently dominating the United States Supreme Court. They, in turn, wash their hands of any culpability whatsoever, pointing to the Constitution, which they have deliberately interpreted as permitting the manufacture and sale of these weapons in the first place: an artful dodge that also eliminates any responsibility (at least in a legal sense) for the manufacturers and sellers of those same weapons. The fact that individuals on the court owe their positions in large part to the lobby that represents such sellers and manufacturers is seen as beside the point.
For the manufacturers and sellers of such weapons, this circular system of self-insulating against blame for the killing of innocent Americans has proved incredibly lucrative. As mass shootings in the U.S. have soared, so have gun industry profits; in fact, the more mass shootings that occur, it appears, the more gun manufacturers profit from sales of their weapons. And as a bonus, when a mass shooting happens (there have been over 300 in this country so far this year as of July 5) the media focus is always on the shooter himself, and to a lesser extent, on how he obtained his weapon of choice (whether he had passed a “background check” or exhibited any “red flags,” for example). The manufacturer of the weapon itself is almost never blamed or held responsible in anything but vague allusions to the nation’s “gun problem.” And the right-wing Supreme Court and those individual justices who have allowed the widespread propagation of such weapons are usually never even mentioned.
So when someone upsets the apple cart and devises a way to hold not only the shooter, but the sellers, the manufacturers, and even the Supreme Court responsible for such shootings, it’s perfectly understandable that feathers tend to become ruffled and feelings are hurt.
Last December, after the state of Texas passed a law permitting private citizens to sue abortion providers and those who assist pregnant individuals in obtaining abortions (the so-called “bounty” law), in response, California Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed a law. Newsom said that if the Supreme Court allowed such an appalling law to stand, his state would adopt a similar tactic with guns, allowing Californians victimized by gun violence caused by illegal weapons (such as unserialized and untraceable “ghost guns” self-assembled from “kits” of components legally purchasable by anyone) the right to sue the gun manufacturers and the sellers who provide them.
Leading media outlets at the time, for the most part, seemed to treat Newsom’s vow as a politically motivated stunt. But last Friday, the proposed SB 1327 was signed to become law in the state of California as of 2023. As reported by CNN’s Veronica Stracqualursi:
California Senate Bill 1327 is modeled after a Texas law that allows private citizens to bring civil litigation against abortion providers or anyone who assists a pregnant person in obtaining an abortion after as early as six weeks of pregnancy. The US Supreme Court in December allowed Texas’ six-week abortion ban to remain in effect, which prompted Newsom, who has been supportive of abortion rights and pro-gun control, to say he was “outraged” by the court’s decision and direct his staff to draft a similar bill to regulate guns.
Under the California law, a person would also be able to sue a licensed firearms dealer who “sells, supplies, delivers, or gives possession or control of a firearm” to anyone under 21 years old. It allows citizens to sue for a minimum of $10,000 on each weapon involved, as well as attorney fees.
As explained in Los Angeles Magazine, the gun industry is not at all happy.
Sam Paredes, the executive director of Gun Owners of California, told the Los Angeles Times that the legislation is a “retaliation against lawful gun owners and the court because of the Texas decision,” and that the bill’s authors are being “vindictive.” Paredes said that the firearms industry will have a “strong reaction” to the bill going into law, according to the Times.
But a strong reaction is exactly what Newsom is counting on. Since the Supreme Court has thus far allowed Texas’ noxious “abortion bounty” law to stand, he believes the California legislation, which is closely modeled on the Texas legislation, will have to stand as well. As Stracqualursi’s report notes, SB 1327 contains a provision that will render itself invalid if and when the Supreme Court invalidates the Texas “bounty” law.
“The Supreme Court opened the door,” Newsom said. “The Supreme Court said this was OK. It was a terrible decision. But these are the rules that they have established.”
Newsom believes there is “no principled way” that the court could overturn SB 1327 without also striking down Texas’ law.
“If they’re going to use this framework to put women’s rights at risk, we’re going to use it to save people’s lives in the state of California,” Newsom said. “That’s the spirit, the principle behind this law.”
Shawn Hubler, writing for the New York Times, notes that the gun manufacturers are naturally prepared to look to their protectors at the Supreme Court for absolution. She also interviewed Paredes:
Mr. Paredes said a coalition of gun rights groups and gun manufacturers had already begun work on a legal response to the California measure, which he said had a critical difference from the Texas abortion statute now that Roe v. Wade had been reversed by the Supreme Court.
“Unlike abortion,” he said, “the right to keep and bear arms is a constitutionally protected right.”
But it isn’t the constitutionality of gun ownership that SB 1327 targets, but the sale of guns and gun components in violation of state law. One key aspect of the California law that parallels the one in Texas is that by deputizing private citizens as opposed to state entities to act as enforcers of the law, it is explicitly drafted to evade judicial review in federal court. That provision is intended to limit challenges to its “constitutionality,” and, in Newsom’s view, that places the onus directly on the Supreme Court to justify its failure to strike down the Texas law, or else forever demonstrate its hypocrisy to the rest of the country.
Stracqualursi quotes Newsom on this point:
“We believe this will be litigated in the Supreme Court and we believe the Supreme Court will be challenged. Because if there’s any principle left whatsoever – and that’s an open ended question – with this Supreme Court, there is no way they can deny us the right to move in this direction,” he said after signing the bill at Santa Monica College, the site of a 2013 shooting spree.
Creative measures like California’s SB 1327 help to explain why California is a safer place to live than Texas, or just about anywhere else. As Hubler’s report points out:
California’s gun laws are among America’s strictest, helping the state deliver one of the nation’s lowest rates of gun deaths. In 2020, the state’s rate of firearm mortality was about 40 percent lower than the national average, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Public Policy Institute of California has determined that Californians are about 25 percent less likely to die in mass shootings, compared with residents of other states.
But beyond that, what Newsom has done with this legislation—whether it survives or not—is to remind Americans that culpability for these shootings does not begin and end with the shooter, but goes straight to the heart of our conservative-dominated judiciary, operating in a twisted symbiotic relationship with the gun manufacturers' and sellers' lobby.
It’s a relationship that no nation can tolerate if it expects to survive.