Gun group sues N.J. attorney general over public nuisance law
A recently-enacted gun law in New Jersey is already facing legal scrutiny after a group representing gun manufacturers nationwide filed a lawsuit against state Attorney General Matt Platkin alleging the law is unconstitutional.
The lawsuit, filed last week in federal court by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, seeks to strike down a law that allows Platkin’s office to bring legal action against gun manufacturers, dealers, and sellers. Gov. Phil Murphy signed the law in July in the wake of a string of mass shootings across the country.
The Connecticut-based group calls the law “breathtaking in scope” and claims it violates the First and Second amendments and the Due Process and Commerce clauses of the U.S. Constitution.
“Our members, manufacturers and retailers can be sued for selling their gun in Texas or Georgia or anywhere else in the country that ends up being misused in New Jersey,” said Lawrence Keane, senior vice president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation. “We believe it’s very clear that there’s no liability in those cases.”
The law allows the state Attorney General’s Office to sue gun makers and sellers for recklessly contributing to a “public nuisance.” When it was signed into law, Platkin said the new civil enforcement authority will “remedy unlawful conduct” by manufacturers and others in the gun supply chain.
A federal law called the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act shields gun companies and dealers from being held liable when crimes are committed with the products they lawfully produce or sell. The suit cites the 2005 law as one of several violated by New Jersey’s law.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation’s complaint argues the New Jersey law is also too broad because it prohibits any gun industry member from contributing to a “public nuisance in the state through the sale, manufacturing, distribution, importing, or marketing of a gun-related product.” If someone from Arkansas moved to New Jersey and brought their gun that was manufactured in Texas, then misused it in a way “that threatens the ‘comfort’ of his new neighbors,” the law could be used to impose liability on the Arkansas and Texas retailer and manufacturer.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation calls the law a “textbook First Amendment violation” because it regulates marketing if it contributes to a public nuisance. The group notes that commercial language falls under free speech protections, citing advertisements for tobacco products, gambling, and abortion.
“That the product being marketed is dangerous does not render speech promoting it entitled to any less constitutional protection either. Truthful speech promoting a lawful product or service is protected … even if the product or service is known to have deleterious health effects,” the suit states.
New York, California, and Delaware have similar “public nuisance” laws. The National Shooting Sports Foundation also sued Delaware last week, while California’s law doesn’t take effect until 2023. In New York, the case filed by the foundation was dismissed by a federal judge.
New Jersey has some of the strictest gun regulations in the country, second to California, according to pro-gun control group the Giffords Center.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation represents more than 9,000 gun and ammunition manufacturers, distributors, and retailers, including several in New Jersey, said Keane. He added that the Bruen decision — the U.S. Supreme Court’s June ruling that expanded concealed carry laws — had no effect on their filing.
New Jersey Democrats have introduced legislation intended as a response to the high court’s decision. On Monday, the Assembly passed a bill that would create a host of areas where firearms cannot be carried; impose new fines, fees, and requirements on gun owners; and mandate safe storage of weapons.
Keane said the foundation’s lawyers are following New Jersey’s other gun measures but are focused on challenging the state’s public nuisance law. He said he believes the bill advanced Monday would be unconstitutional if it is signed into law and could face legal challenges from the National Rifle Association and the Second Amendment Society.
“They’re basically flipping the bird at the Supreme Court because they don’t like the decision,” Keane said. “We’ll see how the courts address what New York and New Jersey have done.”
The state Attorney General’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.
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