Sandy Hook families' lawsuit seeks to hold gun companies accountable


Lawyers for the companies that manufactured and sold the rifle used in the Sandy Hook elementary school shootings argued in court on Monday that they were protected by federal law, and that a lawsuit brought against them by family members of victims and a survivor should be dismissed.

The Bushmaster XM15-E2S rifle used in the 2012 massacre was purchased legally by gunman Adam Lanza’s mother, whom he also killed. But family members of nine of the 26 victims killed in the shooting have argued in the suit that the companies involved were negligent to market and sell a military-style firearm to civilians.

The Bushmaster rifle is an AR-15 weapon of the kind targeted by the expired 1994 federal assault weapon ban.

“There were a lot of guns that our shooter could have chosen from his arsenal and his mother’s arsenal,” Nicole Hockley, whose six-year-old child, Dylan, was one of 20 children shot dead at the Newtown school, said at a press conference before the hearing.

“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.

“He didn’t choose another weapon. He didn’t choose another gun. He chose an AR-15, and the manufacturers need to be held responsible for that.”

At an afternoon hearing in state court, attorneys for the gun’s manufacturer and sellers argued that Congress had passed a law designed to shield gun manufacturers and sellers from just this kind of lawsuit, and that the case should be dismissed immediately.

Accepting the argument of the Sandy Hook parents “would basically eviscerate” the 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), Christopher Renzulli, an attorney for firearms distributor Camfour, said.

“Congress has expressed its clear intention that these cases against firearms manufacturers shall not be brought, and the process by which the law was passed needs to be respected,” James Vogts, an attorney for rifle’s manufacturer, said.

The PLCAA has become a point of contention in the Democratic presidential primary. Hillary Clinton has repeatedly criticized Bernie Sanders for his vote to pass it, and has pledged to repeal it. Sanders has said he would .

In a today about the hearing, Clinton argued that PLCAA “could derail justice for Sandy Hook families”. A highlighted the case, but said that the “the chances are slim” that it would move forward.

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”.

Lawyers for the defendants have compared the lawsuit to an attempt to hold a car manufacturer responsible for a criminal carjacking a vehicle and using it to kill pedestrians.

On Monday afternoon in Bridgeport, a line of grim-faced Sandy Hook family members faced a barrage of television cameras, blocks away from a hearing that would determine whether the case would move forward.

“We feel like we deserve our day in court,” said Mark Barden, whose seven-year-old son Daniel was killed at Sandy Hook. “That’s what we’re asking for today, that this case proceed through its normal process.”

A Connecticut detective holds up a Bushmaster AR-15 rifle, the same make and model of gun used by Adam Lanza in the Sandy Hook school shooting. Photograph: Jessica Hill/AP

The Sandy Hook families’ lawsuit takes a sweeping approach, arguing that gun manufacturers have been negligent to sell AR-15 rifles to civilians – and to market them in a way that may appeal to troubled young men.

In court filings, lawyers for the families argue that while AR-15 rifles are a “valuable law enforcement weapon”, they have “little utility for legitimate civilian purposes”.

AR-15-style rifles are popular with gun enthusiasts but are relatively rarely used in gun homicides. According to FBI statistics, there were at least 8,000 murders committed with a firearm. Rifles of any kind were only used in 248 – about 3% of the total.

The Sandy Hook lawsuit targets not only the guns but also the way firearms companies advertise them as intense, macho weapons.

Bill Sherlach, the husband of Mary Sherlach, a school psychologist who died at Sandy Hook, compared the lawsuit to litigation against tobacco companies, and said he hoped it would reveal the marketing and other internal practices of firearms companies.

“What I’m hoping to do here,” he said, “is to pull that curtain back and peel the onion and take a look at what these guys have done to foster, to stoke the fires, to fuel the rage of these militaristic males to go and do what they do.”

The hearing came a day after an Uber driver was arrested in connection with that left six people dead and two severely wounded. Officials told reporters they recovered a semiautomatic handgun from the shooter.

Josh Koskoff, a lawyer for the Sandy Hook families, said at a press conference for the families on Monday that although the gun industry might be able to buy Congress, “they can’t buy a jury and they can’t buy a judge”.

“We fully believe in the righteousness of this case.”

Connecticut superior court judge Barbara Bellis said she would probably reach a decision within 60 days.