Examining the PLCAA: Who Do Guns Protect?

Elizabeth Long, Apr 3, 2023

Between 1968 and 2017, more Americans were killed by guns than in all U.S. wars combined, and the number of gun-related deaths has only continued to rise [1]. Yet in 2005, amidst intense lobbying efforts from the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), President George W. Bush signed into law The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA). This piece of controversial legislation grants firearm manufacturers broad immunity, shielding them from lawsuits that hold them accountable for the harm caused by their products. It leaves traumatized Americans to bear the cost of gun violence, while manufacturers profit from their deaths. Rather than rewarding an industry that perpetuates the gun epidemic, we should be critical of how our tax dollars indirectly support the gun industry, reconsider these subsidies, and bring firearm producers to endure some of the damaging costs of their weaponry, just as we have done with the tobacco and automobile industries. 

To truly curb the epidemic of gun violence that plagues the United States, we must bring the firearm industry to feel the negative consequences of their production. Under PLCAA, the American people experience a negative externality, an economic phenomenon that occurs when “the indirect costs of one group’s activity are disproportionately borne by an unrelated third party, be it private individuals or society as a whole.”[2] By overturning the PLCAA and enabling lawsuits against manufacturers for harm caused by their products, the gun industry would be incentivized to prioritize safety and compliance with regulations, leading to a reduction in gun violence and mass shootings. 

Beyond the devastating psychological and physical cost of experiencing a shooting, victims of gun violence and their families face tremendous financial burdens. The U.S. Government Accountability Office calculated the costs of surviving a shooting and found that for victims admitted as inpatients to the Emergency Department, the average cost of initial treatment is $31,000 [3]. But the cost of surviving gun violence often extends for many years, and survivors may face long-term physical rehabilitation, mental health care, and lost wages which leave long-term impacts on their finances and mental well-being. Researchers at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital found that in the year after experiencing gun violence, survivors “had a 40% increase in pain diagnoses, a 51% increase in psychiatric disorders, and an 85% increase in substance use disorders … accompanied by increased pain and psychiatric medications” [4]. While the researchers only noted these impacts in the first year, mental illnesses and addiction are not easily cured and tend to endure for many years. The immeasurable mental and emotional suffering inflicted from experiencing a shooting can cost survivors and their families – who have already suffered immensely – life-long burdens. Why must they also bear a huge financial cost? 

Meanwhile, firearm manufacturers do not internalize any of the costs of the damage inflicted by their product. Instead, they receive indirect subsidies from taxpayers through multiple channels, including government purchases of firearms for military and law enforcement agencies and tax breaks for gun-related businesses. In fact, between 2009 and 2012, New York State paid $6 million in subsidies for Remington Arms Co., a firearms factory that manufactures semi-automatic rifles [5]. Overall, Remington Arms Co., along with two other major gun manufacturers, have received more than $105 million in subsidies [6]. Ultimately, American citizens pay for guns with their lives and their taxes.

But, taxpayers indirectly subsidizing harmful industries is not a new phenomenon. For a long time, Americans have funded the hazardous tobacco industry. In fact, in 2018, the Environmental Working Group noted that “between 1995 and 2016, tobacco farmers received more than $567 million in crop insurance premium subsidies” [7]. Today, taxpayers continue to fund crop insurance, market subsidies, and price support programs that finance tobacco farming. Whether or not we buy a pack of cigarettes, our money ends up in the hands of greedy tobacco companies. 

Also, similar to the gun industry, the tobacco industry has historically faced lawsuits for the dangerous usage of its products. Smokers with lung cancer began suing tobacco manufacturers in the 1950s for misleading advertising and failing to adequately inform consumers of the health risks of smoking cigarettes. For decades, sick and misled Americans lost in court against tobacco companies who argued that the consumers assumed the risk when smoking. But in 1994, leaked documents from Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporations revealed the industry’s knowledge that their products were significantly harmful to consumers’ health. Four years later in 1988, forty-six states sued the tobacco industry. They eventually reached a master settlement agreement that facilitated the enactment of new legal restrictions around smoking in public, higher cigarette taxes, and a shift in public opinion about smoking. In the years following, from 1998 to 2019, “consumption of cigarettes fell by more than fifty percent” [8].

Concrete, protective changes occurred only when the tobacco industry, which had knowingly disregarded the deaths and illnesses their product induced, internalized the cost of the harm they produced by undergoing lawsuits and paying back Americans. The United States’ history with the tobacco industry should provide insight into solving the nation’s overwhelming number of gun deaths. Evidently, lawsuits can incite necessary change and protect the American people. 

The progressive transformation of automobiles also serves as a prime example of the positive change that can emerge from holding an industry accountable for the safety of its product. In 1937, the motor vehicle death rate was around “30.8 deaths per 100,000 population” [9]. As of 2020, it was only “12.9 per 100,000 population. . . a 58% improvement” [10]. The dramatic reduction in automobile-related deaths is a result of countless lawsuits against the industry that incited the implementation of automobile safety legislation and industry-wide reform. But, unlike tobacco and automobiles, the gun industry experiences total immunity under the PLCAA which “provides blanket immunity to an industry, as opposed to some specific industry conduct” [11]. As a result, firearm manufacturers have failed to evolve and create safer, more highly regulated products. 

Overturning the PCLAA and bringing firearm manufacturers to internalize the negative effects of their dangerous product would encourage them to support significant gun control legislation, which would drastically reduce the number of shootings in the United States. Gun manufacturers make up almost 55% of The National Rifle Association (NRA), an organization that lobbies vehemently against gun control legislation [12]. Each year, the NRA spends $3 million to influence gun policy, but in 2020 they spent a total of $250 million [13]. Certainly, they have money to spare. Rather than pouring money into lobbying against laws that would protect the American people and marginally reduce the overall profit of the gun industry, firearm manufacturers should repay victims for the damage caused by their products.  

It's time to stop protecting an industry that profits from the trauma and deaths of countless Americans. It’s time to overturn The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act.


[1] “More Americans Killed by Guns since 1968 than in All U.S. Wars - Combined.” NBCNews.com. NBCUniversal News Group, October 4, 2017. https://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/las-vegas-shooting/more-americans-killed-guns-1968-all-u-s-wars-combined-n807156
[2] Wehle, Kimberly. “The Best Hope for Fixing America's Gun Crisis.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, July 28, 2022. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/06/us-gun-violence-mass-shooting-courts-tort-law/661283/
[3] Boyle, Patrick, and Senior Staff Writer. “The Cost of Surviving Gun Violence: Who Pays?” AAMC, October 18, 2022. https://www.aamc.org/news-insights/cost-surviving-gun-violence-who-pays
[4] Song Z, Zubizarreta JR, Giuriato M, Paulos E, Koh KA. Changes in Health Care Spending, Use, and Clinical Outcomes After Nonfatal Firearm Injuries Among Survivors and Family Members : A Cohort Study. Ann Intern Med. 2022 Jun;175(6):795-803. doi: 10.7326/M21-2812. Epub 2022 Apr 5. PMID: 35377713
[5] Mattwelch. “Gun-Hating New York Pols Paid $6 Million to Bushmaster Rifle Manufacturer.” Reason.com, December 28, 2012. https://reason.com/2012/12/28/gun-hating-new-york-pols-paid-6-million/
[6] Indietech-dev. “Top Three Gun Manufacturers Have Received More than $105 Million in Subsidies.” Good Jobs First, June 14, 2022. https://goodjobsfirst.org/top-three-gun-manufacturers-have-received-more-105-million-subsidies/
[7] “Thank You for (Subsidizing) Smoking.” Environmental Working Group, March 2, 2023. https://www.ewg.org/news-insights/news/thank-you-subsidizing-smoking
[8] Wehle, Kimberly. “The Best Hope for Fixing America's Gun Crisis.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, July 28, 2022. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/06/us-gun-violence-mass-shooting-courts-tort-law/661283/
[9] “Historical Car Crash Deaths and Rates.” Injury Facts, April 20, 2022. https://injuryfacts.nsc.org/motor-vehicle/historical-fatality-trends/deaths-and-rates/#:~:text=The%20population%20motor%2Dvehicle%20death,vehicles%2C%20a%2095%25%20improvement
[10] “Historical Car Crash Deaths and Rates.” Injury Facts, April 20, 2022. https://injuryfacts.nsc.org/motor-vehicle/historical-fatality-trends/deaths-and-rates/#:~:text=The%20population%20motor%2Dvehicle%20death,vehicles%2C%20a%2095%25%20improvement
[11] Barton, Champe. “A Guide to the Gun Industry's Unique Legal Protections.” The Trace, January 27, 2020. https://www.thetrace.org/2020/01/gun-industry-legal-immunity-plcaa/
[12] Jay, Allan. “The NRA Is Lobbying and the Gun Companies Are Paying the Bills.” Financesonline.com. FinancesOnline.com, January 3, 2023. https://financesonline.com/the-nra-is-lobbying-and-the-gun-companies-are-paying-the-bills/
[13] “US Gun Control: What Is the NRA and Why Is It so Powerful?” BBC News. BBC, May 27, 2022. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-35261394