Could Martin O'Malley's plan to end gun violence work?

The former governor of Maryland wants to extend his state's thorough regulations to a federal level, aiming to reduce gun violence by half within the decade. 

Paul Sancya
Democratic presidential candidate, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley speaks at a meet and greet Sunday in Muscatine, Iowa.

Deeming it a national “sickness,” Democratic presidential hopeful Martin O’Malley is pledging to take federal action against gun violence, seeking to cut the national death toll by half within 10 years.

In addition to requiring universal background checks on all gun sales and raising the minimum age to possess a handgun from 18 to 21, the former Maryland governor’s plan also calls for the repeal of a 2005 federal law that protects firearm manufacturers and dealers from legal liability when their products are involved in crimes.

Supported by the National Rifle Association (NRA), the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act has become a national standard for gun crime litigation, and has been adopted by 34 states as well. It was cited, for instance, in a judge’s dismissal of a Colorado lawsuit brought by the parents of one of the victims in the 2012 Aurora movie theater shooting.

The act protects firearm manufacturers and dealers from being sued for negligence when guns are used in crimes. It doesn't however protect them from lawsuits related to defective products, breach of contract, or for selling a gun with the knowledge that the gun will be used in the commission of a crime.

"It wasn’t until 2005 that Congress shielded gun manufacturers from the same sort of product liability responsibility that other products would have. There’s an ability and you can have standards and ways to make your product safer, in order to safeguard human life, you have a duty to do that,” Mr. O’Malley said at an event in New York Monday. “And so I believe this was nothing short of the NRA flexing its political muscle to shield the gun manufacturers.”

O’Malley’s vocal stance on gun violence is intended to set him apart from his rivals in the election. It is, then, by no means a coincidence that fellow Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders voted in favor of the bill protecting gunmakers from litigation when it passed in Congress.

Sanders, a self-proclaimed socialist and senator from Vermont, is gaining traction over Hillary Clinton among early primary states. A CBS poll released Monday shows that he’s 10 points ahead of Mrs. Clinton in Iowa. His lax stance on guns, influenced by the sportsman culture of rural Vermont, is seen by some as the biggest stain on his progressive voting records.

O’Malley, on the other hand, remains a dark horse candidate. His support trails far behind Clinton and Sanders, as well as the undeclared Joe Biden.

When asked about Sanders at the press conference Monday, O’Malley didn’t directly comment. “No, I’ll let you draw your own conclusions,” he said.

But beyond political strategies, O’Malley does have a history of gun-control ordinances as a two-term governor. Following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that left 26 people dead in Newtown, Conn., he signed into legislation the Maryland Firearm Safety Act of 2013, which banned high-capacity magazines and 45 models of assault weapons. Aside from background checks, Maryland laws require fingerprint licensing and mandatory safety training, and provides law enforcement the authority to shut down dealers whose guns result in a disproportionate number of crimes.

Only time will tell whether these regulations will have heavy impact in reducing gun crimes. The city of Baltimore, which O'Malley served as mayor from 1999 to 2007, certainly hasn’t been a prime example of the effectiveness of the state’s gun regulations since Freddie Gray's death in April. As of Monday, the homicide count for this year in Baltimore is up to 230, even as gun arrests and seizures are up 40 percent since July.

The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence ranked Maryland’s gun regulations fourth in the nation, behind California, Connecticut, and New Jersey.

“No one piece of legislation will ever do away with gun violence, but we can certainly do better than we are now,” O’Malley said. “When we have an epidemic of this scale that is taking so many lives, we have to ask what would we do if it were Ebola – we would act to close the loopholes.”

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