Sandy Hook Families Win Lawsuit Against Remington Arms
It a common retort to legal firearms like the AR-15 that “nobody needs one.” If this is true, then what would be the marketing practices of a gun seller for this type of weapon? They are not selling to individuals going off to war, so they will have to market them for some sort of civilian use. Therefore the legal stretch taken is that if a gun seller markets for civilian use of a weapon, they are a priori condoning gun violence since there is no other use for this type of weapon in non-militia hands. Obviously, this claim is not necessarily true and neither are its premises, but it is the notion of a significant group of parents that lost their children in the heinous Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012. Since a recent ruling by the Connecticut Supreme Court, these parents now have the opportunity to prove that Remington, the seller of the AR-15 used as the murder weapon of the crime, violated consumer protection laws by marketing this product to civilians. Now, this is already confusing because the Supreme Court has ruled in District of Columbia v. Heller that the Second Amendment protects the individual right to possess a firearm outside of militia service. However, there are two laws being discussed in this case that show how the Connecticut Supreme Court made this ruling, the first being the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act at the federal level and the second being a state regulation, the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act.
Although arguments from the Connecticut parents may sound arbitrary at first, they are bringing forward a legal argument. They are targeting what they claim to be marketing practices by Remington, advertising the AR-15 as a combat weapon. The law Remington is possibly breaking is the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act, or CUPTA, which prohibits unfair competition and deceptive acts or practices in trade and commerce. The language of CUPTA allows anyone to use this law to recover actual damages caused by a business that violates it. The Sandy Hook victimized families will be making the case that they should be allowed to bypass the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCA), passed by Congress in 2005 and attempt to prove Remington violated the consumer protection law. Furthermore, they made the allegation that the company specifically advertised the weapon’s capabilities in combat, specifically marketing to civilians, like the shooter and his mother. This line of reasoning makes the case that Remington sold the AR-15 as an endorsement of criminal activity.
In defense of Remington, much of the momentum in favor of holding the manufacturer liable for the Sandy Hook shooting is fueled by special interests of the anti-gun rights lobby. There is no question that this interest is put before the objective law for some individuals and the aim is to permanently weigh down the gun industry. This sentiment is important because it will not hold any weight if this case or a similar case make it to the Supreme Court. The National Rifle Association argues that the case stands to “eviscerate” the legal protections of gun companies. This legal protection they are speaking of is the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act or PLCA enacted in 2005. Normally, this law would bar lawsuits form even being attempted at the gun industry over gun violence. Remington’s attorney reasoned that this law was enacted by Congress with the intent to block exactly these kinds of lawsuits, that attempt to hold the builder or seller of a firearm liable for its misuse. Their attorney, James B. Vogts, simply reasoned, “There is no need for a legal re-examination of the [PLCA] law”... “ Under the law, the manufacturer of the gun used by the criminal that day isn’t responsible legally for his actions.” Remington had further made the case that the 2005 law has been used to protect the gun industry in similar situations in both state and federal cases.
Connecticut Justice Richard Palmer reasoned for the majority, “There is no indication that Congress intended to restrict the power of the states to regulate wrongful advertising that encourages to engage in egregious criminal conduct.” Although the Connecticut Supreme Court has ruled that the PLCA no longer applies in this case, the law is very specific that no liabilities can be brought on any company involved with the commerce of firearms when damage or misuse is committed with their products. Justice Richard Palmer said that the 2005 law intends to do the exact opposite of what it says, one only needs to read the law. On a further level, even when the majority ruled against Remington, the idea that the company is to blame for the Sandy Hook shooting by encouraging “egregious” activity is an extreme twisting of logic. Now, even if it was true that the PLCA did not exist and Remington did encourage this horrible crime, the company had further made the case that they cannot be sued for consumer protection laws because they lack a business relationship with the parents. In other words, the parents intend to sue for consumer protection laws when they are not consumers. Furthermore, while the parents are not the consumers, neither was the shooter since Adam Lanza took the AR-15 from his mother. So it would seem neither one of the parties were legitimate consumers of Remington.
The ruling by the Connecticut Supreme Court highlights the weakness perceived of arguments presented by Remington’s attorney. Part of the reason was based on the sentiment that the company has much to hide in regard to their marketing practices with weapons like the AR-15. If this is true, attempts at lawsuits could reveal things about sales practices that would change the public perception around the liability of gun sellers for mass shootings. What were the specific advertisements and marketing that ended with an AR-15 in the hands of Adam Lanza’s civilian mother?
As mentioned, after hearing the case for the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act to protect Remington from attempted lawsuits, and the case from the Sandy Hook parents for bypassing this law to give them the opportunity to sue the company, the court ruled in a 5-4 decision that the 2005 law does not apply in this case. A dissenting opinion was written by Justice Richard Robinson, reasoning that the congressional intent of the PLCA is to protect the company in this case. The majority ruled on the contrary that the law does not bar the parents from at least attempting to prove that Remington violated consumer protection laws.
For now, the PLCA has been severely weakened in Connecticut for any similar dispute in the future. Although this does not mean that Remington will automatically be sued for the Sandy Hook incident, investigations will be made into their marketing practices. From the comments of the parents, we know that they believe there is significant information to be uncovered that will build a legitimate case in their defense.
Though a final decision has been made in Connecticut, it is likely that this matter is not over, and will reach the Supreme Court at some point, or at least another state supreme court. If so, the conservative majority on the Supreme Court will be a challenge for the anti-gun hopes of this case and could return to the original intent of the PLCA. Until this point, we can expect to hear about attempts for Remington lawsuits. The significance is that these parents have already made it farther than any similar case before. Since the Columbine High School shooting, lawsuits aimed at gun manufacturers have consistently been shot down by PLCA. The political left and the Democrats see this case as a major political victory by striking the rights of the gun industry, as opposed to a simple matter of the victims’ parents finding justice. Senator Richard Blumenthal said that “It breaks open the seemingly impenetrable shield — unjust and unfair — enjoyed uniquely by the arms manufacturers. It holds them responsible, as every other industry is, for injury and death that they cause.” This will prove to be an enormous difference in moving forward.