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Federal court rules New Jersey can sue gun industry, for now

The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of New Jersey on Thursday, vacating a lower court decision that blocked the state from suing gun manufacturers.

The firearms industry took a blow Thursday when a federal court ruled that New Jersey can sue gun manufacturers under the state's "public nuisance" law. 

A three-judge panel on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that a legal challenge brought against the law by the National Sports Shooting Foundation (NSSF) was premature. Though the court acknowledged the law is somewhat vague about what conduct can trigger a lawsuit from the state, it nevertheless said the firearms industry "jumped the gun" by filing a legal challenge before demonstrating injury. 

"The National Shooting Sports Foundation challenges a new state gun law as violating its members’ constitutional rights. But we see little evidence that enforcement is looming," wrote Judge Stephanos Bibas, a former President Trump appointee. 

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, signed the "public nuisance" law in July 2022, clearing 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.

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Four months after it took effect, 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.

However, since NSSF sued before New Jersey had a chance to enforce its law, the 3rd Circuit panel held that NSSF's complaint was hypothetical.

"With so much still vague and uncertain, a court should not weigh in," Bibas wrote.

In a statement, New Jersey Attorney General Matthew Platkin said he was "thrilled" with the court's decision. 

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"Our law never should have been enjoined, and now it will be back in effect in its entirety," Platkin said. "This law is an important public safety tool, which is why I created the Nation’s first statewide office dedicated to holding accountable those whose unlawful conduct causes bloodshed, and fuels the gun violence epidemic, for the sake of their bottom line."

NSSF General Counsel Lawrence Keane said in a statement the group will file another complaint against New Jersey should the "public nuisance" law be enforced against the gun industry. 

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"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 was among the first states to pass a law opening the gun industry up to litigation in response to several mass shootings and the Supreme Court's landmark 2022 decision broadly expanding gun rights. Blue state governors in Colorado, Hawaii, Washington and Illinois have signed similar laws in recent months.

The 3rd Circuit's ruling is the first time a federal appellate court has weighed in on one of these laws.

Reuters contributed to this report. 

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