On December 14, 2012, a man walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut and murdered 20 children and six adults with a rifle. For almost nine years, the families of the victims – and much of the country – have been screaming for some kind, any kind, of justice. On February 15, 2022, they finally got it.
The families of five adults and four children settled their lawsuit against Remington Arms for $73 million. It is a landmark victory, not because of the money but because of what it represents: a precedent to hold negligent, reckless gun manufacturers accountable for the way they market their guns to children and adults alike – and they’re not the only ones on notice.
“This victory should serve as a wake-up call not only to the gun industry, but also the insurance and banking companies that prop it up,” said Josh Koskoff, one of the attorneys who represented the families in the lawsuit. NPR further reports:
For the gun industry, it’s time to stop recklessly marketing all guns to all people for all uses and instead ask how marketing can lower risk rather than court it. For the insurance and banking industries, it’s time to recognize the financial cost of underwriting companies that elevate profit by escalating risk. Our hope is that this victory will be the first boulder in the avalanche that forces that change.
One of the terms of the settlement, per the New York Times, is “that Remington agreed to release thousands of pages of internal company documents, including possible plans for how to market the weapon used in the massacre — a stipulation that had been a key sticking point during negotiations.” The goal is to “pry open” the gun industry and makes it processes more transparent. Such tactics have worked before; look at what happened to Big Tobacco.
Why haven’t people sued gun manufacturers before?
They have. Some of them have even won. For example, the families affected by the D.C. snipers were successful in their claim, and others have successfully sued under product liability laws for defective gun parts.
But lawsuits claiming negligence by manufacturers often fail to launch entirely because of something called the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA). Before its passage in 2005, many gun manufacturers faced “public nuisance” lawsuits, which essentially argued that the manufacturers’ sales tactics allowed for the illegal sales of their products, which were then used in the commission of crimes. Eventually, the National Rifle Association lobbyists had enough, and they pushed for the new law, which was passed with bipartisan support. As the Center for American Progress explains:
The PLCAA marked an effort to put an end to such litigation, which sought to hold gun manufacturers and dealers accountable for the harm caused by their products and for negligent business practices that enabled gun trafficking. The law provides broad immunity to gun manufacturers and dealers in federal and state court, protecting the gun industry from most civil liability claims. Generally, the PLCAA prevents plaintiffs from filing lawsuits against the gun industry, even in cases where these parties have been negligent and there was “criminal or unlawful misuse” of a firearm or ammunition.
There were exceptions built into the law, such as knowingly selling a gun to someone who wanted to commit a crime, but it essentially gave the manufacturers blanket immunity.
Why the Sandy Hook lawsuit against Remington was different
Because of the blanket immunity of the PLCAA, the Sandy Hook families had to try something entirely new. Instead of saying that Remington was liable for their losses because the shooter used one of their guns, they argued that Remington purposely “targeted younger, at-risk males in advertising and product placement in violent video games,” per AP News. In one such ad, for example, there is a picture of the rifle with the caption “Consider Your Man Card Reissued.”
It was this approach – that the marketing of the guns was negligent and reckless – that convinced the Connecticut Supreme Court that the case could move forward.
What happens now for the Sandy Hook families?
By agreeing to a settlement, Remington has said – kind of – that it will not appeal. That means the precedent stands.
As for the families, they receive whatever share of the damages that the agreement entitles them to receive. That information is confidential. What is not confidential is who will pay, and that is Remington’s insurance company, because Remington declared bankruptcy for a second time in 2020. This is why we say Remington “kind of” said it will not appeal. Technically, Remington Outdoor Company doesn’t exist, which means its insurance companies are the ones who settled.
Do not be fooled for one minute that the gun manufacturer is actually taking any responsibility. It’s not. None of them ever do. Our best guess is they’ll martyr themselves to the gun advocates, claiming they didn’t want to settle but their insurance companies made them.
What happens now to the gun manufacturers?
Maybe they all get sued. Maybe they strongarm Congress into passing even stricter laws that offer them immunity no matter what they do, or how many dead 6-year-olds they leave in their wake.
Since 2009, there have been 10 mass shootings in Washington State, killing 44 people and wounding four others. There have been 267 in the United States as a whole, killing almost 1500 people and wounding almost 1,000 more. No one is doing anything about it.
But maybe – just maybe – we FINALLLY get some actual protections for people in this country. And if it takes the insurance companies standing up for our rights, then for the first time in our professional lives, we’ll be cheering for the insurers. Because we all know that there is NOTHING insurers hate more than paying out money. So if this lawsuit sets a precedent that the insurance companies have to pay for dangerous marketing, we’re all for it.
And we have a few ideas of our own.
- Pressure social media companies to ban images of guns. The government can’t control what gets put on Facebook or Twitter, but their CEOs can. We NEVER want to see another “Check out my family with rifles” holiday card again.
- Re-up old legislation and introduce new legislation. The Federal Assault Weapons Ban lapsed in 2004. Bring it back. And start introducing federal “red flag” laws, a national database for background checks, and a waiting period for all purchases. Anyone who needs a gun right now should probably have to wait to get it.
- Make insurance mandatory. You need insurance to drive a car or own a home. In fact, you can be DENIED insurance for a bad driving record or owning a certain kind of dog, so why isn’t gun insurance required? If San Jose can do it, so can everyone else.
Notice, too, what we’re not suggesting. We’re not suggesting that the government overturn the Second Amendment and ban guns (though we think the Heller decision plays a significant role in the problems we face today). We are asking – demanding – that legislators start treating guns as they treat dogs and cars: as tools that pose unique dangers, and therefore should have certain basic rules governing their ownership and use.
And if they do not, we will be here to take on the gun manufacturers and lobbies. We will fight for justice for those who can no longer fight for themselves. Defective gun parts, reckless advertising, total disregard for the safety of others: there is no battle too big for us when it comes to protecting the rights of our community.
Philbrook Law Office is ready to help you stand your ground against the gun manufacturers whose reckless disregard for life and liberty has cost us all so much. Contact us in Vancouver or Battle Ground, WA to learn more about your legal options. Please call 360-695-3309 or fill out our contact form. Proudly serving Washington State.
Founding Attorney Matthew Philbrook attended Clark College, Washington State University, and Gonzaga University School of Law. He is a member of the Washington State and Oregon State Bar Associations and started Philbrook Law Office in 2005. He specializes in Personal Injury, DUI and Criminal Defense cases. Learn more about Mr. Philbrook.