A lawsuit filed by one of the victims in the Sunset Park subway shooting could be a test case for a new state law that intends to make it easier to take gun companies to court in New York.

Ilene Steur, 49, has sued Glock, which manufactured the 9-mm pistol that a man allegedly used to shoot her and nine other commuters on a crowded subway train in April. Steur’s attorneys argue that the company has not gone far enough to keep their guns out of the wrong hands.

For years, a federal law has barred nearly all such lawsuits against the gun industry. But that could be changing, at least in New York. A state law signed by then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo last year found a loophole to allow civil cases like Steur’s. Legal experts say it could set the standard for a new strategy to go after gun companies when their products end up at the scene of a crime.

But lawmakers and legal scholars are still unsure if this suit will stand up in court, because of the strong federal protections for companies like Glock and the burden of proof Steur’s attorneys would need to meet to hold the gunmaker liable.

“It’s hard to say at this stage,” Jake Charles, executive director of the Center for Firearms Law at Duke University told the Brian Lehrer show earlier this month, adding Steur and her attorneys would need to gather evidence to support their claims.

“It seems to be a bit of a legal stretch,” says Amy Swearer, a legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

The suit paints a picture of a weapon that has become pervasive in American culture. It cites movies, TV shows and rap songs that have made Glock a household name, from appearances on “Law and Order” to lyrics in songs by T.I. and Tupac Shakur.

Steur wants Glock to change how it advertises and sells its guns, to prevent more shootings like the one that injured her. Her complaint argues that Glock appeals to prospective buyers with criminal intent, like the man who shot her, by promoting their guns’ easy concealment and high firepower. It also accuses the company of flooding the market with more weapons than it can bear to sell legally and not doing enough to prevent wrongful purchases.

Glock did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

‘You can’t file these suits anymore’

Complaints against gun companies used to be common. In the late 1990s, multiple cities, including Chicago, New Orleans and Los Angeles, sued gunmakers and dealers for their role in the spread of violence.

There was also a push on the national level to regulate the sector. Before leaving office in 2000, President Bill Clinton reached an agreement with the manufacturer Smith & Wesson to add new safety measures to their designs, stop working with dealers whose sales were regularly traced to crime scenes and limit their magazine capacity to 10 rounds of ammunition.

But that deal was an anomaly. Other gun companies warned lawmakers that the constant threat of civil suits could put them out of business.

“That was sort of the point, was to kneecap this lawful industry and to make it more difficult, more expensive for them to engage in, again, this lawful industry,” says Swearer of the Heritage Foundation. “So, Congress stepped in to essentially say, ‘You can’t file those suits anymore.’”

In 2005, legislators passed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, also known as the PLCAA, which shields the gun industry from lawsuits when their products are used in shootings, with just a handful exceptions. Since then, nearly all complaints against gun companies have been thrown out in court, including a suit brought by the city of New York against Beretta, a gun manufacturer.

But a few recent developments could reverse that trend.

In Connecticut, the gun manufacturer Remington reached a historic settlement with the families of the victims in the Sandy Hook shooting this past February, almost a decade after one of their guns was used to kill 20 children and six adults at an elementary school. And in New York, legislation passed last year made it legal to sue firearm companies if their marketing or sales practices endanger residents’ health or safety.

That law paved the way for Steur to sue Glock. It could provide a path forward for a new wave of lawsuits against the gun industry – both in New York and elsewhere.

While complaints against gun companies are typically barred, they are allowed when gunmakers or dealers advertise or sell their products in a way that violates a state’s own laws for firearm marketing and sales. New York, in essence, made a law for just that exception.

“I think then you will see a lot of other states that are more friendly to gun control and to these sorts of arguments, I think you will see more of these sorts of laws being passed, precisely to give room for those sorts of lawsuits circumventing the PLCAA,” Swearer says.

State Sen. Zellnor Myrie sponsored the bill that legalized civil suits against the gun industry in New York. He doesn’t know if it’s the best option to curb violence. But, in a moment when people are searching for solutions, he said it is one viable way to address the problem.

Unfortunately, bad actions by industries and corporations are usually not resolved by the good will of a CEO
State Sen. Zellnor Myrie

“Unfortunately, bad actions by industries and corporations are usually not resolved by the good will of a CEO or the good will of an industry leader,” he says. “The unfortunate reality is that they are often forced to change their practices by way of litigation.”

‘We do not want your business’

Myrie wishes corporations would take more steps to prevent their firearms from being used in crimes before anyone sues them. The National Shooting Sports Foundation and several firearms companies – including Glock – have challenged his legislation in court, arguing that it violates federal law and would make it impossible for them to operate.

“The Act irreparably harms Firearm Industry Members by forcing them to choose between halting their operations or being in fear of the constant possibility of business-ending litigation,” the suit states.

Myrie thinks companies that are doing what they can to ensure their guns aren’t used to kill people have nothing to worry about. If they can’t do business without putting people at high risk for victimization, he says, then they ought to change their practices. Otherwise, he doesn’t want their guns in New York.

“If you are, in fact, contributing to kids being killed in Crown Heights, in Brownsville, in East Flatbush, and in Buffalo, and in Syracuse, and in Rochester, then no, we do not want your business,” he says.

A judge ruled against the gun industry last month, so the state law still stands – at least for now. But the National Shooting Sports Foundation tells Gothamist that the gun groups plan to appeal. If the case goes all the way to the Supreme Court, it’s possible the conservative-leaning bench would rule in their favor. That could jeopardize not only New York’s law, but also future proposals in other states.

Myrie says saving lives should be more important than debates about Second Amendment rights. He says he has attended too many funerals and spoken to too many victims and traumatized communities “for this to be just some political issue where we disagree with folks.”

Myrie says it’s an issue of “life or death.”

“This isn’t about anyone coming after your legally possessed guns. This is not what this is about,” he says.” They are killing my people. The guns are killing my people.”