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25 years and one PLCAA Later, Chicago is Still Harassing Gunmakers

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

25 years and one PLCAA Later, Chicago is Still Harassing Gunmakers

On March 19, the city of Chicago filed suit against handgun manufacturer Glock. Seeking to shift responsibility for the city’s woeful governance, Chicago’s lawsuit blames the popular firearm manufacturer for the third-party criminal misuse of its products. Specifically, Chicago is seeking to hold Glock liable for the fact that criminals use illegal devices (auto sears or so-called “Glock switches”) to illegally modify Glock pistols into illegal machine guns. The suit seeks to force Glock to alter the design of its celebrated pistols along with monetary damages.

The law on the possession and use of auto sears is crystal clear. Devices that are designed to convert semi-automatic firearms to fire automatically are illegal throughout the U.S.

Federal law, 26 USC § 5845(b), defines a “machinegun” as follows:

any weapon which shoots, is designed to shoot, or can be readily restored to shoot, automatically more than one shot, without manual reloading, by a single function of the trigger. The term shall also include the frame or receiver of any such weapon, any part designed and intended solely and exclusively, or combination of parts designed and intended, for use in converting a weapon into a machinegun, and any combination of parts from which a machinegun can be assembled if such parts are in the possession or under the control of a person.

Note the language in bold. Firearms that shoot automatically meet the definition of a machinegun. However, even a mere part “designed and intended solely and exclusively… for use in converting a weapon into a machinegun” is itself a machinegun absent any other part of the firearm. Therefore, possession of an auto sear, even without an accompanying receiver, barrel, etc., is the possession of a machinegun.

Those found in mere possession of an auto sear face up to 10 years imprisonment. (18 USC § 924(a)(2), 26 USC § 5871)

Violent criminals who possess or use an auto sear during the commission of a crime face truly staggering penalties.

Moreover, these devices are illegal under Illinois law. The Land of Lincoln prohibits the sale, manufacture, purchase, and possession of “any combination of parts designed or intended for use in converting any weapon into a machine gun.” Under state law, those found in possession of a “Glock switch” are guilty of a Class 2 felony and face three to seven years imprisonment.

Sadly, employing existing laws against dangerous criminals doesn’t appear to be a priority for the Windy City. An August 2023 item from Chicago’s public television network noted, “The number of sworn Chicago police officers dropped approximately 13% between August 2017 and June 2022.” In a January 2024 article, former CEO of Chicago Public Schools Paul Vallas took a swipe at Mayor Brandon Johnson, stating, “The mayor seems determined to further reduce the number of Chicago police officers. His budget eliminated 833 police positions, compounding the 614 positions eliminated by former Mayor Lori Lightfoot.”

To be fair to Chicago, some U.S. Attorneys may not be interested in doing all they could to confront criminal use of illegal machineguns at the federal level.

U.S. tort law has long held that a person or entity cannot be held responsible for a third party’s criminal acts. Simply put: people are responsible for their own behavior, not the behavior of others. Therefore, if a violent criminal acquires and misuses a firearm to commit a crime, it is the criminal who is liable for the conduct, not the company that produced the firearm. Just like how Chevrolet isn’t responsible for the actions of drunk drivers.

This is no different in the case of criminals who illegally modify lawful property into unlawful property. Machine guns are regulated under the National Firearms Act, so are Molotov cocktails – as “destructive devices.” A glass soda bottle can be converted into a Molotov cocktail using gasoline and a rag. If such an illegal item were then used to harm others, should the soda company be held liable? Of course not.

Unfortunately, Chicago has long sought to weaponize the courts using dubious legal theories to attack Constitutional rights and its political enemies. In 1998, the city, under Mayor Richard Daley, filed suit against 22 gun manufacturers along with a handful of gun dealers and distributors using a “public nuisance” theory. At the time, a Chicago Tribune editorial called the lawsuit “wrong-headed and ill-advised,” noting that the suit “represents an abuse of the tort liability system.”

In 2004, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled against Chicago and its public nuisance theory. Pointing to well-established tort law, the opinion noted,

we hold that proximate cause cannot be established as to the dealer defendants because the claimed harm is the aggregate result of numerous unforeseeable intervening criminal acts by third parties not under defendants' control. By implication, proximate cause is also lacking as to the manufacturer and distributor defendants, who are even further removed from the intervening criminal acts.

Even though Chicago lost, the city had imposed tremendous costs on the defendants. An NRA official explained at the time, “These cases aren’t designed to win… It’s a sinister abuse of the legal system aimed at bankrupting a lawful industry.”

Such abuses led to the enactment of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act in 2005. The federal law merely codified the standard tort principle, making clear that members of the firearms industry cannot be held liable for the third-party criminal misuse of their products. Despite the PLCAA’s clear mandate, anti-gun politicians and their tort attorney allies have concocted increasingly bizarre legal theories in an attempt to get around the law.

Glock shouldn’t face any liability for third-party criminal acts under a proper interpretation of longstanding tort law and the PLCAA. However, Chicago’s demand that a company that makes some of the most popular pistols in the world alter their design is also risible as a practical matter.

Glock has a reasonable claim to making the most reliable semi-automatic pistols in the world. That is one of the reasons Glocks are the standard duty sidearm of numerous federal agencies, including the ATF and FBI. The company notes that their firearms “are now the weapon of choice for over 65 percent of the law enforcement agencies across the United States, and they’re used in more than 50 elite military units worldwide.” Glock pistols are on the Chicago Police Department’s list of department approved handguns.

The 40-year-old Glock design is proven technology. If anti-gun politicians who have little knowledge of, or respect for, the lawful use of firearms are able dictate design changes to Glock, it could put law-abiding gun owners and law enforcement in danger.

NRA-ILA will continue to work to ensure Americans retain access to the tools necessary to exercise their Second Amendment rights by supporting policies that protect America’s vibrant firearms industry.

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Established in 1975, the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) is the "lobbying" arm of the National Rifle Association of America. ILA is responsible for preserving the right of all law-abiding individuals in the legislative, political, and legal arenas, to purchase, possess and use firearms for legitimate purposes as guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.