By Anna Hoover
On December 14, 2019, the B-CC for Gun Control club put up 20 silhouettes in front of the second floor entrance of B-CC to represent the 20 children killed in the tragic Sandy Hook shooting that took place on the same day seven years prior. The silhouettes are meant to honor the children who died and display their personalities. Laura Barnard, a sophomore in the club, said, “It’s important to honor them because even though they were just kids, their lives were so important, and their lives were shortened too soon.”
On that day, December 14, 2012, 20-year-old Adam Lanza walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School with a Remington Bushmaster AR-15 style rifle and opened fire, killing 26 students and staff members before shooting himself. The incident remains the second deadliest school shooting in United States history. Two years after the shooting, in late 2014, the families of nine victims and a survivor filed a lawsuit against Remington Arms Company. The families alleged that Remington targeted young, mentally unstable males in marketing. This lawsuit could be the first step in regulating gun sales and marketing.
The suit, Remington Arms v. Soto, cites product placement of the Bushmaster in violent video games like Call of Duty as dangerous marketing. It also mentions a few advertising campaigns, one with the slogan: “Forces of opposition, bow down. You are single-handedly outnumbered,” and another advertising the rifle as a “man card.” An additional advertisement on the Bushmaster website includes the tagline:“If it’s good enough for the military, it’s good enough for you.”
The families say this type of marketing is dangerous because the targeting of mentally unstable young men can inspire and permit them to commit crimes with Remington weapons and because the implication that a man must buy and use a gun to reaffirm his masculinity is malicious.
Remington argues that because of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), the lawsuit should not proceed. The PLCAA, signed by President George W. Bush in 2005, protects firearms manufacturers and dealers from liability in incidents where their products were involved in crimes. The act was the culmination of an extended effort by the National Rifle Association to create protection for gun companies from lawsuits. At the time, President Bush said the law was necessary to protect gun makers from “frivolous lawsuits.” The law has several exceptions — including one allowing lawsuits against a gunmaker that knowingly violates state or federal laws regarding the marketing of the sale of a product.
The Connecticut Supreme Court decided in a 4-3 ruling in March of 2019 that the PLCAA did not prevent the families from bringing on the lawsuit, based upon the fact that Remington violated the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act by marketing a military-style weapon to citizens.
Remington appealed this decision, arguing that the Connecticut court used a too broad interpretation of the exception. The gunmaker also argued that the state court’s interpretation of the marketing exemption is “intolerable given Congress's intention to create national uniformity” with the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act. "Lawsuits like this one are precisely the kind the PLCAA was enacted to prevent," Remington said.
The National Rifle Association, nine states, and 22 members of the House of Representatives are among the parties that have signed legal briefs supporting Remington. The N.R.A. argued that the families’ challenge to the PLCAA could lead to other lawsuits, potentially putting the firearm industry “out of business by unlimited and uncertain liability for criminal misuse of their products.”
On November 12, 2019, the Supreme Court declared that it would not hear the appeal. This allows the lower court’s decision to stand and the lawsuit to proceed.
The Cato Institute, a public policy research foundation, was part of a brief of amici curiae filed with the Court declaring that Remington is wrongly being attacked “for advertising themes that have long been central to American gun culture.” The lawsuit was intended to “constrict the right to bear arms and attack the Bill of Rights and attack the Constitution,” they added. They also said that this lawsuit and previous “suits against the industry associations assailed the freedom of speech.”
Groups within the firearm industry worry that the suit will put the industry out of business. The industry is important to the American economy, contributing more than $52 million in 2018, and generating almost $7 billion in federal and state taxes. The authorization of the suit to proceed changes the interpretation of the PLCAA and is likely to put into action other similar lawsuits.
This lawsuit comes at a time of high passion regarding guns and gun control in the United States. The U.S. has experienced a succession of mass shootings in recent decades, many of which featured assault-type rifles. These incidents have led to a mass increase of advocacy in the country for Congress to pass stronger laws regarding guns and the sale of guns. Many feel that this lawsuit is a step forward in the movement towards gun control.
“The Remington lawsuit is the long-overdue proof that reckless gun manufacturers and sellers will be held responsible for the damages they may potentially cause,” said Eva Esposito, co-president of B-CC for Gun Control. “[The lawsuit and its successes] are an example of the impact the movement has had, of the growing consciousness of the United States’ gun violence epidemic and gun culture,” Esposito added.
The question left standing for Remington is whether to fight the case in state court or settle, potentially encouraging other courts to follow Connecticut’s lead. Either way, Remington v. Soto is the beginning of new interpretations and developments in the law of gun liability and in the firearm industry as a whole.