• Bushmaster argues that 2005 law gives it immunity from suit
  • Hearing took on new meaning after last week’s Orlando massacre

A 2005 federal law was designed specifically to prevent gunmakers from being sued for mass killings like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School, lawyers for the maker of the AR-15 assault weapon used in the attack told a Connecticut judge.

The suit over the massacre of 20 children and six educators hinges on an exception to the law that applies when a seller “negligently entrusts” a weapon to a buyer who is likely to use it in a crime. 

Attorney James Vogt, a lawyer for the Remington Arms Co., said Monday in state court in Bridgeport that the exception is intended to apply to face-to-face retailers or individuals who sell guns. It can’t be applied to a manufacturer, he said. The question of whether the AR-15 should be sold to the public should be dealt with by legislators rather than juries, he said.

The exception could only apply “if the retailer had known that Mrs. Lanza’s son was mentally ill,” Vogt said, referring to Nancy Lanza, the mother of shooter Adam Lanza.

About a dozen family members attended the packed hearing, which took on fresh meaning in the wake of last week’s massacre of 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, with a similar assault rifle -- the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. 

‘Unsafe But Legal’

“Aren’t there other things that are unsafe but legal?” Vogt asked, using cigarettes as an example. He compared the situation to a car’s being stolen and then used to run over a crowd of people, resulting in a suit against the dealer and automaker.

Bushmaster Firearms International, maker of the rifle, and parent Remington should have known that mass shootings like the 2012 attack might result from selling military-grade weapons with 30-round clips to civilians, plaintiffs’ attorney Josh Koskoff said .

QuickTake Guns in America

The AR-15 “was designed to be used in combat, and yet there it was on the floor, not of a battlefield, but of Vicki Soto’s first grade classroom, having been used by a civilian,” Koskoff said, referring to a 27-year-old teacher killed at Sandy Hook after attempting to hide her students in a closet and mislead the shooter. The rifle “did not get there by accident.”

The Stakes

A victory for the Sandy Hook families might provide a road map to success in court for victims in other mass shootings, despite a variety of laws in other states, including Florida, that offer even greater immunity to gunmakers.

Assault weapons were banned in Connecticut after the Sandy Hook assaults, and on Monday the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to the law. A federal ban on such weapons was passed in 2004 and expired a decade later. Renewed efforts by mostly Democratic lawmakers have repeatedly failed.

Congress in 2005 passed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which shields gun companies from liability when crimes are committed with their products. The statute, backed by the National Rifle Association, has helped the industry win dismissal of other cases.

At Monday’s hearing, Koskoff referred to legislators as “sheep” who lack sufficient knowledge about semiautomatic weapons that can be deadlier than fully automatic weapons banned in the U.S.

Companies’ Knowledge

Bushmaster and Remington “know what these weapons can do more than any congressman,” Koskoff said.

Judge Barbara Bellis may take as long as three months rule in the Connecticut case. The suit has already proceeded further than others like it, with Bushmaster’s attempt to end case on jurisdictional grounds rejected by Bellis in April. That ruling triggered a requirement for evidence to be exchanged, which may reveal internal e-mails and other documents at Bushmaster and Remington.

The case is Soto v. Bushmaster Firearms International LLC, 15-cv-6048103, Connecticut Superior Court (Bridgeport).

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