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This New York law could be a step toward holding gunmakers accountable in shootings

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

One of the victims in a recent mass shooting on a subway in New York City wants to hold the manufacturer of the shooter's gun accountable for her injuries. For years, a federal law has barred almost all lawsuits against the gun industry. But as Samantha Max of member station WNYC reports, a new state law could change that, at least in New York.

SAMANTHA MAX, BYLINE: Ilene Steur was on her way to work one morning in April when another passenger, armed with a Glock 9-millimeter pistol sprayed more than 30 bullets into her crowded subway car. Steur and nine others were hit. Her attorney, Sanford Rubenstein, says she's suffering.

SANFORD RUBENSTEIN: There's no question that these injuries will be with her for the rest of her life, both physically and psychologically.

MAX: The shooter has been criminally charged. But there's a growing movement to hold gunmakers accountable too, not just the individuals who pull the trigger. In February, the gun manufacturer Remington reached a historic settlement with the families of the victims in the Sandy Hook shooting. Parents of the Uvalde shooting victims are considering their own complaints against Daniel Defense. And last year, New York made it legal to sue firearm companies if their marketing or sales practices endanger residents' health or safety. That law paved the way for Ilene Steur to sue Glock. Her attorney expects more lawsuits to use this strategy going forward.

RUBENSTEIN: Well, I think it's really important that every tool possible to stop this terrible epidemic of gun violence in our country has to be utilized.

MAX: Legal challenges like these used to be common. In the late '90s, multiple cities, including Chicago, New Orleans and Los Angeles sued gun makers and dealers for their role in the spread of violence. But the gun industry warned lawmakers that the constant threat of civil suits could put them out of business.

AMY SWEARER: That was sort of the point was to kneecap this lawful industry and to make it more difficult, more expensive for them to engage in, again, this lawful industry.

MAX: Amy Swire is a legal fellow at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

SWEARER: So Congress stepped in to essentially say you can't file those suits anymore.

MAX: She's talking about a federal bill passed in 2005. It protects the gun industry from lawsuits when their products are used in shootings with just a handful of exceptions. Since then, nearly all such complaints have been thrown out in court. But that's starting to change.

SWEARER: I think then you will see a lot of other states that are more friendly to gun control and to these sorts of arguments, I think you will see more of these sorts of laws being passed precisely to give room for those sorts of lawsuits.

MAX: State Senator Zellnor Myrie sponsored the bill that legalized civil suits against the gun industry in New York.

ZELLNOR MYRIE: If you are, in fact, contributing to kids being killed in Crown Heights and Brownsville and East Flatbush and in Buffalo and in Syracuse and in Rochester, then no, we do not want your business.

MAX: He says gun companies rarely fix a problem without legal pressure.

MYRIE: The unfortunate reality is that they are often forced to change their practices by way of litigation.

MAX: Industry leaders are now challenging the legislation in court. They say it violates federal law and would make it impossible for them to operate. A judge upheld New York's law last month, so it still stands, at least for now. But the gun groups plan to appeal. For State Senator Myrie, it's an issue of life or death.

MYRIE: This isn't about anyone coming after your legally possessed guns. This is not what this is about. They are killing my people. The guns are killing my people.

MAX: Glock did not respond to multiple requests for comment. For NPR News, I'm Samantha Max in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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United States & World Morning EditionAll Things Considered
Samantha Max
Samantha Max covers criminal justice for WPLN and joins the newroom through the Report for America program. This is her second year with Report for America: She spent her first year in Macon, Ga., covering health and inequity for The Telegraph and macon.com.