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Appeals Court: Challenge to N.J. Gun Law Premature

A federal appeals court on Thursday dismissed a gun industry group’s challenge to a novel New Jersey law that expands the liability of gun manufacturers and sellers for endangering public safety, saying it was too early for the court to rule on a law that hadn’t been used.

A three-judge panel of the Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated a lower court’s injunction blocking the law and dismissed the challenge, allowing the law to go back into effect. Although it said the law was somewhat vague about what conduct could spur one of these lawsuits, the court did not address its merits.

New Jersey’s law, which was passed in July 2022, clears a path for the state’s attorney general to file lawsuits against local gun businesses based on an exception to the federal Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), which broadly protects the industry from liability.

Four months after it took effect, the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) sued to block it, claiming the law runs afoul of the federal statute. In January, a district court granted the NSSF’s bid for a preliminary injunction, saying the law was in “direct conflict” with the PLCAA.

But the group’s lawsuit was filed before the law had been enforced, and the NSSF didn’t do enough to prove that there was an imminent threat to its members’ rights, the 3rd Circuit said.

“With so much still vague and uncertain, a court should not weigh in,” said Circuit Judge Stephanos Bibas, who wrote the unanimous opinion.

In a statement, New Jersey Attorney General Matthew Platkin said he is “thrilled” with the ruling, “which allows our office to take on bad actors in the firearms industry.”

In a statement, NSSF General Counsel Lawrence Keane said the group will refile its complaint if the New Jersey attorney general attempts to enforce the law.

“While we respectfully disagree with the court’s decision on our pre-enforcement challenge, it is important to note the court did not say New Jersey’s law does not violate the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act; it clearly does,” Keane said.

New Jersey is one of the first states to pass a law expanding the threat of litigation for the gun industry as part of an effort to reform it. Similar laws have passed in Colorado, Hawaii, Washington, and Illinois in recent months.

The 3rd Circuit’s ruling is the first time a federal appellate court has weighed in on one of these laws, but gun control laws are facing increasing scrutiny in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 ruling broadly expanding gun rights.

© 2023 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.

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