Bushmaster to Face Families' Suit Over Sandy Hook Massacre

  • Company sued over military-grade rifle sales to civilians
  • Gunmaker's request to throw out the lawsuit is denied by judge

The maker of the assault rifle used in the 2012 massacre of more than two dozen students and teachers must face a lawsuit by victims’ families accusing Bushmaster Firearms International LLC of wrongfully selling the weapon to civilians.

Connecticut State Judge Barbara Bellis on Thursday rejected Bushmaster’s argument that a 2005 federal law shields gunmakers.

The families claim Bushmaster, maker of the AR-15 rifle used by Adam Lanza in the attack at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, was specifically engineered for the U.S. military to kill in combat and is being wrongfully sold to civilians to make a profit. Bushmaster is a unit of Cerberus Capital Management LP’s Remington Arms Co.

The ruling didn’t address the merits of the plaintiffs’ claims, focusing instead on whether the court had jurisdiction over the subject matter in the complaint, given federal and state laws. The ruling does allow the case to move forward, which the lawyers say is a victory in such a case.

The decision “marks a huge victory for the Sandy Hook families in their effort to hold gun companies responsible for the Sandy Hook massacre,” their law firm, Koskoff Koskoff & Bieder PC, said in a statement. Josh Koskoff, one of the lawyers, said the families “look forward to continuing their fight in court.”

Jessica Kallum, a spokesman for Madison, North Carolina-based Remington, didn’t immediately reply to a message seeking comment on the ruling.

National Debate

The attack reignited the national debate overt gun violence and spurred calls for lawmakers to strengthen firearm-control laws, such as expanded background checks on buyers, a ban on civilian sales of military-style rifles and a limit on the ammunition capacity of magazines. Those efforts have mostly failed, leading President Barack Obama to seek change through executive action, though such measures are minor by comparison.

The ruling came hours before Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, the two Democratic presidential hopefuls, were to face each other at a debate in Brooklyn. Clinton has repeatedly criticized Sanders over his support for laws protecting gunmakers from liability, and she pressed him on the issue at a debate in January. That debate took place across the street from the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where nine people were shot and killed last year by a white supremacist.

Sanders, the junior senator from Vermont, voted for the 2005 law, called the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, or PLCAA. In January he attempted to neutralize one of Clinton’s attacks against him by issuing a press release backing legislation that would weaken the 11-year-old law. Days before, Clinton called Sanders “a pretty reliable vote for the gun lobby.”

Protects Gunmakers

In moving to dismiss the case, Bushmaster argued it was shielded by the act, which protects gun makers and dealers from liability when crimes are committed with their products, with six exceptions. The families argued two exceptions applied to the case.

Lanza, 20, shot and killed his 52-year-old mother, Nancy, before going to the school he once attended and killing 20 children and six adults. Lanza killed himself after the massacre with a Glock pistol. The suit was filed by one survivor and the families of four adults and five children who died.

The rifle used in the killings was legally purchased by Nancy Lanza. In the house she shared with her sons, troopers found boxes of ammunition for the shooter’s weapons and for a 303 British rifle, .45 caliber handguns, a .40 caliber Smith & Wesson, a 5.56 mm Winchester weapon, a “box for ‘battle-tested’ vest accessories,” a cache of knives and three Samurai swords, according to police records.

According to the complaint, the size and firepower of the rifle used by Lanza are “liabilities in home defense,” and there is one “tragically predictable civilian activity” in which it succeeds -- mass shootings.

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