Sandy Hook Families Make Last-Ditch Plea to Save Gun Lawsuit

Updated on
  • Lawyer argues that case isn’t covered by federal immunity
  • Adam Lanza killed children, adults with an assault weapon
Guns in America

Judges on Connecticut’s highest court repeatedly pressed an attorney for Remington Arms Co. about why advertisements for its AR-15 semiautomatic rifle touted its ability to "single-handedly" overcome "forces of opposition."

"If it’s used for hunting or for target practice, what’s the purpose of that?" Justice Richard Palmer asked Tuesday at a packed hearing in the Connecticut Supreme Court, where families seek to revive a lawsuit against the company over the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre by Adam Lanza using the company’s assault weapon.

People speak on the steps of the Connecticut supreme court on Nov. 14 after a hearing to revive their lawsuit.

Photographer: Erik Larson/Bloomberg

"It’s not clear to me what type of target practice requires one to really eviscerate a target," Palmer said, adding that the families described the weapon as a "killing machine."

James Vogts, Remington’s attorney, said that the ads were intended to build interest in the gun, which he said can also be used for self defense.

"If I felt the need to have a firearm to protect myself and my family, I’d certainly want to choose the weapon that would force the opposition to bow down," Vogts said. He also said that the weapon is "being used to hunt deer at this very moment all across the country."

The hearing in Hartford ended without a ruling. A decision in favor of the victims won’t be a final victory, as the case would be sent back to the lower court for further proceedings and eventually a trial.

Family Position

After the hearing, some of the families gathered on the courthouse steps. Ian Hockley, whose six-year-old son Dylan was killed in the attack, blasted Remington’s sale of Bushmaster military-style weapons to civilians without the type of extensive training and psychological screening that’s required for a soldier to be issued such a weapon in the military.

"The manufacturer of the Bushmaster takes no such precautions when unleashing their product in the civilian market," Hockley said. "They could not care less what happens to their guns once the cash is in the bank, showing their utter disregard for the lives this weapon takes."

Lawyers for the family members have asked the court to revive the suit that was dismissed last year by Judge Barbara Bellis in Bridgeport, Connecticut. She ruled that it was blocked by the federal Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, or PLCAA, which bars gun companies from being held liable for crimes committed with their products.

The statute, backed by the National Rifle Association, has helped the industry defeat similar cases, with the Sandy Hook suit perhaps the highest-profile example. Opponents say easy access to guns is to blame for continued mass shootings in the U.S., including the Oct. 1 massacre of 58 people at a concert in Las Vegas and the slaughter just a month later of 26 people in a Texas church.

On Tuesday, at least five people are dead, including the gunman, after a shooting in Northern California’s Tehama County, according to CNN.

The Sandy Hook case hinges on an exception to the federal immunity law that applies when a seller “negligently entrusts” a weapon to a buyer who is likely to use it in a crime. Remington argues the exception is intended to apply to face-to-face transactions involving retailers and individuals -- not to manufacturers.

The families’ argument seeks a novel way around the federal immunity provision. Even by getting the suit to trial, the families hope to gain access to gunmakers’ internal communications, which may aid others seeking to pursue similar suits growing out of gun violence.

The massacre at Sandy Hook was caused "solely by the criminal misuse of a weapon by Adam Lanza," Bellis said in last year’s ruling. "This action falls squarely within the broad immunity provided by PLCAA."

The families have argued Bushmaster Firearms International LLC, maker of the rifle, and parent Remington should have known that mass shootings such as the attack at the Sandy Hook school might result from selling military-grade weapons with 30-round clips to civilians.

Connecticut Justices to Hear High-Stakes Sandy Hook Gun Case

The group contends that the gunmaker’s disregard for what was likely to happen was equivalent to gun retailers selling weapons to customers who they knew were likely to commit a crime -- a scenario that isn’t protected by the 2005 federal law shielding gun manufacturers.

“They marketed the weapon for exactly what it was,” plaintiffs attorney Josh Koskoff said in court, adding that Remington even used product placement to get its weapon in first-person-shooter video games played by Lanza.

Koskoff said the use of the AR-15 in so many mass shootings was foreseeable by the company and that Remington sought to maximize sales by marketing them to susceptible young men such as Lanza, who killed 20 children and six adults at the school on Dec. 14, 2012.

When Lanza prepared for his massacre that morning, he put on tactical gear, taped 30-round magazines together and reached for a weapon that Remington should never have made available to him, Koskoff said.

“The weapon he needed for his mission was never in doubt,” he said. “Remington may never have known, but they had been courting him for years. The courtship between Remington and Adam Lanza is at the heart of this case.”

The company has argued that the question of whether the AR-15 should be sold to the public should be dealt with by legislators rather than juries.

Assault weapons were banned in Connecticut after the Sandy Hook shooting. In June, 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 to reinstate it have repeatedly failed.

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

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