Monday, June 3, 2013

Justice Is Not Blind

If you serve an incapacitated person alcohol and let them borrow your car, it’s no surprise that if they hit and kill someone, you will be held accountable. You will be punished and have to pay for the harm caused. The chances are you won’t repeat the mistake.

The laws that apply to you and me are meant to deter bad behavior on the one hand, and provide justice to those harmed on the other.

It may come as a surprise that the same rules don’t apply to the manufacturers and sellers of guns. These companies have a unique law on the books that shields them from legal liability. In light of the recent shooting tragedy in Falmouth, Maine, now is a good time to talk about whether Cabela’s should be held to the same community standards of care as everyone else.

The last thing on Thomas Leighton’s mind, of course, is whether he should sue Cabela’s, the company that sold the weapon his mentally ill son used to murder his wife of 48 years. He’s understandably busy coping with a death and criminal trial.

My heart breaks for the Leighton family.  I didn’t know her, but when I read about Shirley Leighton and that she would talk about her son and cry, I cried. It’s tragically unfair that this hard-working devoted wife, mother and grandmother was shot in the head by her own child as she tried desperately to get him the medical help he needed.

No words can describe the agony that the Leighton family must be experiencing on so many levels. Their story, however, begs for a solemn and respectful community conversation about our values and the justice system.

It’s not fair that after 48 years of marriage, Thomas Leighton has to spend the rest of his life alone questioning what he should have done to protect his wife.

It’s not fair that only after he killed his mother, will Andrew Leighton get the institutional support and medical attention he obviously needs to treat his mental illness.

The shocking reality is that Cabela’s will likely not be held accountable for selling the obviously incapacitated and deranged Andrew Leighton the gun he used to shoot his mother, or giving him the bullets that killed her on May 3rd.  And this isn’t fair either.

The silence of corporations following a tragedy compared to the massive amounts of corporate “speech” used to lobby members of Congress is stunning. In 2005 the NRA’s top legislative priority for its members was passage of “The Protection of Lawful Commerce Act,” a law that grants manufacturers and sellers of guns and ammunition immunity from lawsuits. Millions and millions of dollars were spent lobbying to get this legislation passed.

Since corporations are people in the eyes of the law, spending huge sums of money to get laws passed like the Protection of Lawful Commerce Act is apparently a legitimate exercise of the First Amendment right of free speech. With rights comes responsibility for the rest of us. Why should corporations get one without the other?

In the aftermath of the Leighton tragedy, the law will likely be used as a shield against any potential claims brought by the family seeking justice for Shirley’s murder, even though Cabela’s apparently sold  AndrewLeighton the gun used to kill when he was at the height of a mental health crisis and obviously impaired beyond reason.

Treating powerful special interests differently is not what laws are supposed to do.

The law that was passed to shield the gun industry from responsibility for selling incapacitated people like Andrew the guns they use to kill people like Shirley is a bad law. There is nothing to deter profit seeking corporations from doing harm, and there is no method for people harmed to seek justice.

Some will argue the law protects the gun industry from “politically motivated” lawsuits that could bankrupt weapons makers, but the U.S. gun industry racked up over $10 billion in sales in 2012, and $900 million in profit. It can afford to be held accountable for bad acts.

In America, real people are hauled in to court when they breach the community’s standard of care. A jury of their peers determines an award of money damages that will deter irresponsible and reckless behavior going forward, and fairly compensate for the harm caused. If gun corporations have a First Amendment right to lobby the United States Congress with millions of dollars in order for them to sell billions of dollars worth of weapons, they should be subject to the same standards as the rest of us, and take responsibility for reckless behavior.

If we want to deter corporations from recklessly selling guns to incapacitated people, we must subject them to the American system of justice and hold them accountable in a court of law.