Sandy Hook families cannot hold gun company liable in massacre, judge rules

A Connecticut judge ruled on Friday that a group of families cannot hold gun companies liable for manufacturing, distributing or selling the AR-15-style rifle used to kill 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook elementary school in 2012.

The gun companies are protected by a 2005 federal law designed to shield gun companies from liability when their products are misused by criminals, Connecticut superior court judge Barbara Bellis ruled, granting the gun companies’ motion to strike the case.

The Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, has pledged to repeal this 2005 law if elected. Clinton’s campaign has argued that the law “lets gun manufacturers and dealers act without consequence” and that “ending the gun industry’s legal immunity is an important step in tackling the epidemic of gun violence in this country”.

Gun rights advocates and gun companies say the law, which protects gun companies from liability “for the harm purely caused by criminal or unlawful use of firearm products”, is common sense and shields the industry from politically motivated attacks.

The Bushmaster XM15-E2S rifle used in the 2012 school shooting had been legally purchased by shooter Adam Lanza’s mother. Lanza shot and killed her before driving to a local elementary school and murdering dozens of people.

Clinton championed the Sandy Hook families involved in the lawsuit earlier this year as part of a series of attacks on her then opponent, Senator Bernie Sanders, who had voted in favor of the law. But her campaign said at the time that the 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act ensured that the families’ chance of success in the case was “slim”.

“While the families are obviously disappointed with the judge’s decision, this is not the end of the fight. We will appeal this decision immediately and continue our work to help prevent the next Sandy Hook from happening,” Josh Koskoff, one of the lawyers representing the Sandy Hook families, said in a statement on Friday.

The defendants in the lawsuit include Bushmaster, the company that made the rifle; Camfour, a firearms distributor; and Riverview Gun Sales, the store where the gun was bought. According to court filings, Bushmaster merged into Remington Arms, which is also named in the lawsuit, in 2011. Both companies are part of the Freedom Group, which calls itself “the world’s leading innovator, designer, manufacturer and marketer of firearms”.

Nicole Hockley, who lost her child, Dylan Hockley, 6, in the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut, testifies on assault weapon legislation at the state senate. Photograph: Seth Perlman/AP

The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act does not shield gun companies and dealers from all legal liability. They can still be sued over defective products, if they break the laws governing gun sales, and for “negligent entrustment”, or selling the gun to someone who would obviously misuse it.

To get around the shield law, lawyers for the Sandy Hook families had tried to argue that the manufacturer, distributor and dealer were all “negligent” to market and sell powerful military-style weapons to civilians. The Connecticut judge rejected this argument.

Agreeing with the Sandy Hook families’ legal theory “would imply that the general public lacks the ordinary prudence to handle an object that Congress regards as appropriate for sale to the general public. This the court is unwilling to do,” the judge ruled.

Millions of Americans own AR-15s, which are one of the most popular styles of consumer rifles in America. FBI data suggests that only 3.55% of all gun murders are committed with any type of rifle. Most gun murders are committed with handguns.

“Remington is pleased with the court’s decision today to strike the plaintiff’s complaint,” Remington lawyer James Vogts said.

“We are pleased that the court has dismissed the case based on the PLCAA,” Larry Keane, the general counsel to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the firearm industry’s trade group, said in a statement. “This law passed Congress over a dozen years ago by a broad bipartisan margin. It does not provide ‘blanket immunity’, as some have claimed. It merely bars lawsuits that seek to hold manufacturers and dealers responsible for the criminal misuse of legal, non-defective products that were lawfully sold.”

Among the family members that filed the lawsuit against the gun companies were Mark and Jackie Barden, who lost their seven-year-old son, Daniel; Nicole and Ian Hockley, who lost their six-year-old son, Dylan; and Bill Sherlach, who lost his wife, Mary, the school’s psychologist.

When Jackie Barden researched the gun used to kill her son, she was shocked at the military language and images Bushmaster used to market its weapons. “Consider your man card reissued,” one ad read, with a photo of a black rifle. “Forces of opposition, bow down,” read another.

“Here you have this machine that was designed for use by the military being sold to civilians, to untrained civilians, with aggressive military battlefield language,” her husband, Mark, told the Guardian in April. “And guess what? History has shown that these people who are suicidal, disturbed individuals who are bent on killing large numbers of people – that’s the weapon they choose.”

Several parents involved with the lawsuit said they thought gun companies’ marketing made the weapons more attractive to disturbed, violent young men like the one who killed their children.

“There were a lot of guns that our shooter could have chosen from his arsenal and his mother’s arsenal,” Nicole Hockley said at a press conference in February. “He chose the AR-15. He was aware of how many shots it could get out, how lethal it was, how it would serve his objective of killing as many people as possible in as short a time as possible … and the manufacturers need to be held responsible for that.”

Family members said they knew the lawsuit would be an uphill battle. They were told early on that “gun manufacturers are untouchable”, Jackie Barden said.

Gun control groups criticized the decision and said PLCAA “infringed” on victims’ rights.

“Claiming to protect one right, the gun lobby has infringed on another: the right to have your day in court,” Robyn Thomas, the executive director of the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said in a statement. “The dismissal of the Newtown families’ case doesn’t mean their claims lack merit – it means that our system is rigged in favor of the gun industry and our leaders refuse to hold the manufacturers of deadly weapons of war accountable for the carnage they wreak in our communities, on our streets, and even in our first-grade classrooms. PLCAA is a disgrace that Congress must repeal.”

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