Long-frustrated efforts by the families of kids killed by gun violence to hold manufacturers responsible for their deadly wares struck at least temporary pay dirt in a Connecticut Supreme Court decision today. The court allowed a suit against the manufacturer of the weapon used by Adam Lanza in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown go forward despite federal statutes shielding gunmakers from liability. It vindicated a novel legal strategy involving separate state laws, as the New York Times explained:
The court agreed with the lower court judge’s decision to dismiss claims that directly challenged the federal law shielding the gun companies from litigation, but found the case can move forward based on a state law regarding unfair trade practices.
Justices wrote in the majority opinion that “it falls to a jury to decide whether the promotional schemes alleged in the present case rise to the level of illegal trade practices and whether fault for the tragedy can be laid at their feet.”
A 2005 federal law that was a high priority for the National Rifle Association and the gun lobby generally greatly restricts suits holding manufacturers and dealers liable for the death and injury caused by guns. But there are exceptions for violations of state laws, and that’s what the Connecticut court will now allow a state court trial to examine.
Lawyers pointed out advertising — with messages of combat dominance and hyper-masculinity — that resonated with disturbed young men who could be induced to use the weapon to commit violence.
“Remington may never have known Adam Lanza, but they had been courting him for years,” Joshua D. Koskoff, one of the lawyers representing the families, told the panel of judges during oral arguments in the case in 2017. The weapon used by Mr. Lanza had been legally purchased by his mother, Nancy Lanza, whom he also killed.
Because this decision involves interpretation of a federal statute, the gunmaker will almost certainly appeal it to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Remington could also prevail at a trial, so this is just a first step toward manufacturer liability. But unless SCOTUS steps in to stop a trial, it could represent a blow to the gun industry even if it eventually wins the case, as the Hartford Courant noted:
It also paves the way for the families to subpoena internal documents on how the gun companies have marketed the AR-15, which has become the weapon of choice for mass shooters. The gun manufacturers have closely guarded information on how they market the assault weapons …
“The families’ goal has always been to shed light on Remington’s calculated and profit-driven strategy to expand the AR-15 market and court high-risk users, all at the expense of Americans’ safety. Today’s decision is a critical step toward achieving that goal,” [attorney Josh] Koskoff added [in a statement].
In the long-running war between the gun lobby and gun safety advocates, the Connecticut battle could possibly represent a turning point.