Court: Sandy Hook Victims' Lawsuit Against Gun Maker May Move Forward

Mar 15, 2019
Originally published on March 15, 2019 12:10 pm
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The company that makes the semi-automatic weapon used in the Sandy Hook massacre may now be held legally responsible. The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that families of those killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 can now move forward with a lawsuit against the gun-maker Remington. The suit claims that Remington's marketing campaigns violated Connecticut's consumer protection law.

Davis Dunavin is a reporter from member station WSHU. He has been following the case and joins us now. Davis, can you just start by explaining the substance of this lawsuit that was brought by Sandy Hook families, right?

DAVIS DUNAVIN, BYLINE: Right. So this originally started as a wrongful death lawsuit brought by nine families and one survivor of the shooting in 2014 against Remington because, you know, Remington, as you said, makes the Bushmaster AR-15 style rifle. When they originally brought the lawsuit, they also actually brought it against the gun shop, too, where the shooter bought the Bushmaster. And, originally, a lower court had struck this down because of a 2005 federal law that said, you know, gun manufacturers like Remington aren't responsible, aren't liable for shootings that are committed with their guns.

But what the families are most interested in is a part of this that's called wrongful marketing. So the families' attorneys point to some ads from Remington that show the rifle with the slogan that says consider your man card reissued or ads that show a lone gunman on an empty battlefield. And they also say Remington marketed the Bushmaster directly toward young people. They say they basically get product placement in violent, first-person, shooter video games like "Call Of Duty."

MARTIN: So essentially that's a sort of loophole - right? - because the so-called shield laws that protect the gun manufacturers - those are quite strict.

DUNAVIN: Right, right. Yes. And, you know, Remington's argument has largely been that they're protected under these laws.

MARTIN: How are the families reacting to this?

DUNAVIN: Well, you know, they've largely said what they want is for companies like Remington to be held accountable. They've said that, you know, they want to have their day in court. David Wheeler is one of the parents on the lawsuit. His son Ben Wheeler was one of the children who died in the shooting. And here's what he had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAVID WHEELER: There is a reason this particular consumer product is the one that is used by people who want to inflict the most damage. That reason, very likely, partially resides at the feet of the manufacturers in their advertising and marketing policies.

DUNAVIN: And then another family member named Bill Sherlach whose wife was a school psychologist at Sandy Hook - he said he expects to spend the rest of his life on this avenue in one way, shape or form. And he says, right now, that means he wants to see what went on inside Remington and with their marketing.

MARTIN: So clearly Remington disagrees with that. They don't believe that, because they make this weapon, that they're to be held responsible. But have they been given - have they given any specific response to the judge's ruling or to the court's ruling, rather?

DUNAVIN: Well, they didn't have - right. They didn't have much to say yesterday beyond that they had no comment. They said they'll have no comment for the foreseeable future. They've largely stuck to their position that they're protected under the law. You can look at the reaction from some of the gun - from some firearm trade groups. And you can kind of see what the reaction from the industry has been, though.

NRATV basically said this could lead to more lawsuits - and that's the media wing of the NRA - and that, for that reason, they didn't like it. And then there's a group called the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which is a major firearms trade group that's actually based in Newtown, Conn. And they, too, said they think this is an overly broad decision that could set a dangerous precedent.

MARTIN: But, just briefly, I mean, could it? Are there other lawsuits that could arise as a result of this ruling?

DUNAVIN: Yeah, it could. It opens up the possibility that the gun manufacturers could be sued in other state courts after the shooting. So this is now getting sent back to Connecticut state court. So this sort of says that the federal law doesn't apply in state courts, and it also gives attorneys the opportunity to get Remington's documents like memos, communications, emails having to do with marketing. And then they might be able to see what was going on behind the scenes when these guns were being marketed.

MARTIN: Davis Dunavin with WSHU. Thanks so much.

DUNAVIN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.