Is the Sandy Hook suit a roadmap for holding gunmakers accountable?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Families of victims killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting have agreed to a $73 million settlement with Remington Arms in a landmark court case that is believed to mark the first time that a gun manufacturer has been held legally accountable for a mass shooting in the United States.

The settlement comes more than seven years after families of nine victims sued the maker of the Bushmaster XM15-E2S semiautomatic rifle, one of the weapons used by the gunman in the 2012 shooting in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 first graders and six adults dead.

“Today is a day of accountability for an industry that has thus far enjoyed operating with immunity and impunity, and for this I am grateful,” said Veronique De La Rosa, whose 6-year-old son, Noah, was killed in the shooting.

Some of the families involved in the case said they were initially told it was “unwinnable” because of a law passed by Congress in 2005 that granted gun manufacturers and dealers broad protection from liability when weapons they make or sell are used in crimes. That law, however, included some narrow exceptions — including one stating that gunmakers could be vulnerable to litigation if they ran afoul of state consumer protection laws. The families’ lawyers argued that Remington violated a Connecticut law banning “unfair or deceptive” business practices, because its marketing for the Bushmaster encouraged violent, military style combat missions to civilians.

Why there’s debate

Many gun control advocates are hopeful that this case will provide a blueprint for other victims and their families to take legal action against gun manufacturers. They argue that lawsuits following the model provided by the Sandy Hook families could rein in gunmakers, who until now have not had to worry that their actions could make them vulnerable to major financial losses.

Others say the case could represent a shift in Americans’ attitude toward guns. In addition to the financial payout, the settlement also makes it possible for thousands of internal documents from Remington to be made public. Some experts say those materials, depending on what they contain, could turn public opinion against gun manufacturers so dramatically that the longstanding stalemate on gun control legislation breaks.

But skeptics warn against expecting too much of a ripple effect from one case. They argue that, since the case ended in a settlement rather than a final ruling, it’s not clear how potent the legal argument used by the families will prove to be in the future. Representatives of the gun industry say that Remington, which filed for bankruptcy last year and will have its settlement funds paid out by insurers, put up a much weaker defense than most gunmakers would in similar litigation. Others argue that the country’s gun culture runs so deep that even a series of major lawsuits against manufacturers won’t meaningfully affect the number of firearms owned by Americans.

What’s next

Gunmakers face another, perhaps even more significant, legal challenge in an ongoing case filed by the Mexican government, which argues that the companies contribute to bloodshed within its borders by knowingly producing weapons that will be trafficked illegally.


The case provides a roadmap for holding gunmakers accountable

“The Sandy Hook families accomplished much of what they set out to do. They took on an industry that thought itself untouchable, and they made it accountable. They provided a framework that states can use to make the gun industry more responsible.” — Editorial, Washington Post

The case represents a direct attack on Americans’ Second Amendment rights

“Despite Remington agreeing to settle, there are sound legal reasons to not hold an entity—that did not make any choice that directly caused harm to others—responsible for the harmful actions its customers may commit. The Second Amendment guarantees a legal right to keep and bear arms, at least for self-defense in the home. This right would be hobbled if gun manufacturers regularly faced liability for the guns they sold being used to harm others.” — Brian Doherty, Reason

Other gunmakers are just as vulnerable to litigation as Remington

“I do think that this settlement is going to encourage more lawsuits against gun makers when their firearms are used in mass shootings. The kinds of advertising that were used by Remington in this case were not unique to that company. And many of the gun makers have marketed these AR-15-style military assault rifles in ways that emphasize combat violence, and appeal to the same kind of hyper-masculinity that the families accused Remington of doing here.” — Adam Winkler, gun law expert, to Axios

In lieu of new legislation, lawsuits are the best vehicle for reining in gun manufacturers

“Even with the waning of the NRA’s influence, this sort of legislation has been very elusive, and there continues to be, for whatever reason, a lot of resistance in American society to — not banning guns, not violating the Second Amendment, but to taking commonsense sort of steps to restrict them. So this notion of increased liability for gun makers could end up being very powerful.” — Joyce Vance, MSNBC

It’s unclear whether the legal theory used by the families will hold up in future cases

“The Sandy Hook settlement leaves unanswered the scope of the federal immunity shield, which thwarted all prior attempts to hold gun manufacturers responsible for the criminal misuse of their weapons. What’s more, Remington’s reasons for agreeing to settle may have more to do with the company’s struggle to reemerge from bankruptcy than a newfound willingness among gun-makers to settle claims.” — Timothy D. Lytton, The Conversation

The case could spark new legislation to make gunmakers vulnerable to lawsuits

“Even if the deadly weaponry remains legal for sale in most states … we need not sit idly by while it’s pushed to people eager to pull the trigger in the worst way. Congress must repeal the federal liability ban. And until they do, more state legislators with a conscience must follow Connecticut’s lead.” — Editorial, Daily News

The gun industry has too much power for meaningful change to happen

“Will the $73 million settlement in the Sandy Hook case change anything? We’re not confident it will. Among other things, too many members of Congress will continue to fall under the sway of gun lobbyists.” — Editorial, CT Post

Gunmakers will be hesitant to continue their most irresponsible advertising practices

“Gun victims are finally standing up for their rights instead of leaving unchallenged the way mass-killing devices are marketed as a statement of manhood and Second Amendment preservation. Gun makers’ mission is not about the Constitution. It’s about maximizing profits. And they do it by advertising guns using macho, military imagery and associating assault rifles with patriotism and the defense of liberty. Tuesday’s settlement shot a big hole through that nonsense.” — Editorial, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The biggest impact will come once Remington’s internal documents are made public

“Remington finally has agreed to the plaintiffs’ demand that the internal documents it has shared so far be made public. And that could be huge: The tide of public opinion turned against tobacco companies and opiate-maker Purdue Pharma after damning internal communications were revealed. Getting behind the curtain here could have a similar impact on gun companies, loosening their grip on Congress. And it makes similar lawsuits more likely.” — Yvonne Abraham, Boston Globe

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Carlo Allegri/Reuters