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Could Kate Steinle Decision Kill Gunmaker Lawsuits?

Could Kate Steinle Decision Kill Gunmaker Lawsuits?

(vchal / Shutterstock photo)

Could an interesting court decision made recently in San Francisco be just the impetus to derail frivolous lawsuits against American gun makers and gun sellers for criminal use of their legal, safe products?

A 9th Circuit panel ruled last week that the federal government can’t be held liable for the death of Kate Steinle, the San Francisco woman who was shot and killed by an illegal immigrant using a pistol stolen from the vehicle of a ranger for the Bureau of Land Management. In that 2015 incident, Steinle was killed by a shot in the back while walking along a pier. José Inez García Zárate, who fired the gun, which he said he found earlier underneath a bench, was acquitted of all murder and manslaughter charges. The killing made headlines because Zárate, a repeat felon, had been deported five times before firing the shot that ended Steinle’s life.

The recent decision came in the case in which Steinle’s family sued the federal government, which the family claims should have had possession of the gun at the time the shooting took place. The gun belonged to BLM Ranger John Woychowski but was stolen from his vehicle four days prior to the shooting. Plaintiffs sued, alleging that Woychowski was negligent in failing to store or secure his firearm properly and in leaving it, loaded, in an unattended vehicle in an urban location where the firearm could be easily stolen.

I’m no lawyer, and don’t even play one on TV. However, I do have a pretty healthy dose of common sense. And it was in the court’s explanation of why it found the federal government not liable that precedent might have been set that could relate to lawsuits against gun makers and sellers.

“We conclude that the connection between Woychowski’s storage of the pistol in his vehicle and Ms. Steinle’s death is so remote that, as a matter of law, Woychowski’s acts were not the proximate or legal cause of the fatal incident,” the court said. “Several events—many of which remain unknown—intervened after Woychowski left the loaded pistol in his vehicle: (1) someone broke into the locked vehicle; (2) someone stole a seemingly innocuous backpack; (3) someone found a pistol in that backpack; (4) someone removed the pistol from its holster, then wrapped it in a cloth and abandoned or lost it a half-mile away; (5) Lopez-Sanchez picked up the firearm, four days later, and fired it, apparently aimlessly; and (6) the bullet ricocheted off the ground and struck Ms. Steinle.”

Interestingly, a similar chain of events could be cited for lawsuits against firearms maker Remington after the Newtown shootings, in which a Bushmaster rifle was used to kill several schoolchildren. They include: (1) Remington, which owned Bushmaster, produced a functional, safe rifle; (2) Remington sold the rifle to a wholesale gun seller; (3) the wholesaler sold the gun to a retail gun seller; (4) the retail gun seller sold the rifle to the shooter’s mother, who underwent a federal background check; (5) the shooter killed his mother;  (6) the shooter stole the rifle; (7) later, the mass murderer took the rifle to the school and killed the victims. Given those facts, does it seem like Remington making and marketing the rifle was the “proximate or legal cause” of the Newtown killings?

In the Steinle case, what the court cited as its reason to not hold the BLM ranger liable was whether there was a “direct connection” between the ranger storing his firearm improperly and Steinle being killed. The court ruled there was no such connection because there were several layers of circumstances that separated the two actions.

Couldn’t the same case be made, though, for Remington making the Bushmaster rifle and the murdering thief using it to kill children years later? It seems that the “direct connection” between the two acts was broken well before the heinous criminal act was ever committed.

In fact, the same could hold true for any gun company or gun seller who made or sold a firearm used later by a criminal to commit a crime. Unless the company made the gun and the craftsman who manufactured it took it straight out and killed someone with it, in nearly all frivolous lawsuits against gun makers and sellers that “direct connection” the court cited in this case has been broken at least a couple of times. 

Only time will tell whether the 9th Circuit decision based on that lack of “direct connection” will be used in defense of gun sellers and gun makers. In the meantime, it’s an interesting concept that at least merits discussion.

Freelance writer and editor Mark Chesnut is the owner/editorial director at Red Setter Communications LLC. An avid hunter, shooter and political observer, he has been covering Second Amendment issues and politics on a near-daily basis for more than 20 years.

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