The Supreme Court will consider this week whether to hear a case seeking to pierce firearm manufacturers’ legal immunity in the aftermath of shootings.
The case, Remington Arms Co. v. Soto, pits relatives of those killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting against Remington, the maker of the AR-15-style rifle used in the Dec. 14, 2012 massacre in Newtown, Conn. Twenty first graders and six educators died.
The lawsuit challenges a 2005 law protecting gun makers from legal liability when their weapons are used in crimes. The families argue that Remington violated Connecticut’s Unfair Trade Practices Act by recklessly marketing the rifle to disturbed young men like the Sandy Hook gunman, through product placement in violent video games and advertising pitches like “Consider your man card reissued.”
Most attention in the current Supreme Court term has been on whether the justices will expand Second Amendment rights. But should the justices decide to allow the case to move forward to trial, either by refusing to hear Remington’s appeal or by hearing the case and ruling in the families’ favor, the lawsuit could provide a legal road map for victims and survivors seeking to hold gun makers accountable for gun violence.
The justices will meet on Friday to discuss whether to take the case. The court may grant or deny review shortly afterward, or continue considering the matter.
The high court appeal was brought by Remington after the Connecticut Supreme Court allowed the lawsuit to proceed to trial. Remington says the families’ case, if successful, would “eviscerate” the 2005 federal law.
The National Rifle Association, the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, Second Amendment law professors, nine states and 22 members of the House are among the signatories of a half-dozen legal briefs supporting Remington. The N.R.A. argued that the families’ challenge to the 2005 law could open the door to other lawsuits, potentially putting the firearm industry “out of business by unlimited and uncertain liability for criminal misuse of their products.”
Remington said in a legal filing that the Connecticut lawsuit was “widely recognized as a bellwether for the future of firearms litigation nationwide.”
The Connecticut Supreme Court agreed with a lower court judge that one element of the case cannot be tried, saying that the federal shield law precluded the families’ argument that Remington had “negligently entrusted” a weapon of war to an untrained civilian population.
But in a 4-to-3 ruling, the Connecticut justices upheld another element of the families’ case, saying the lawsuit could continue to trial under the state consumer protection law. “Connecticut law does not permit advertisements that promote or encourage violent, criminal behavior,” the decision said.
The lawsuit, filed in 2014 by the families of nine victims and a teacher who was shot and survived, accuses Remington of using militaristic and hypermasculine advertising for its Bushmaster AR-15-style rifle in order to attract disturbed young men like the Sandy Hook killer. On its website, Bushmaster advertised the AR-15 rifle with the “man card” slogan and the tagline, “If it’s good enough for the military, it’s good enough for you.”
The 2005 federal law, called the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, was the culmination of an extended effort by the National Rifle Association to create a blanket protection for gun companies from most liability lawsuits. When the bill passed, the organization noted its seven-year campaign for the law, including “a comprehensive legislative and election strategy,” according to its chief lobbyist.
At the time, the firearms industry and President George W. Bush, who signed the law, said it was necessary to protect gun makers from “frivolous lawsuits” that could bankrupt the companies. Wayne LaPierre, the chief executive of the National Rifle Association, called the law “historic,” saying its passage by Congress was the industry’s most significant legislative victory in 20 years.
Critics, including scores of law professors who signed a letter to Congress protesting the bill in 2005, have said the law extends protection to the firearms industry that few other industries enjoy.
Several previous legal challenges to the shield law have failed, but the Sandy Hook case is the first to take on the industry in this way, said Adam Winkler, a constitutional law expert at the U.C.L.A. School of Law who has written about gun rights.
The nearly five years that the Sandy Hook case has spent winding through the court system “shows you how strong this immunity really is,” Mr. Winkler said.
The federal law includes six narrow exceptions under which plaintiffs can sue gun companies, including if they can prove they were harmed after a manufacturer “knowingly violated a state or federal statute applicable to the sale or marketing of the product.”
The Connecticut Supreme Court’s decision “made a pretty persuasive case that the advertising fit into this exception,” Mr. Winkler said.
The Connecticut state court ruling brought the case closer to the discovery phase, a pretrial exchange of information between the parties. The Newtown families have asked for internal Remington documents, emails and other communications to “pull back the curtain” on the company’s marketing practices, the families and their lawyers have said.
Public sentiment toward other industries, including tobacco and pharmaceutical, have shifted significantly after documents revealed during the discovery phase of legal cases showed that the companies misled the American public.
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