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Sandy Hook Families Push To Hold Gun Maker Accountable In Court

Richard Drew
Mark Barden, father of 7-year-old Daniel who was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, holds a photo of his three children during a speech on gun responsibility in 2014.

The Connecticut Supreme Court is likely to decide this week whether to allow 10 families of victims in the 2012 Newtown school shooting to sue Remington, the company that manufactured the assault-style rifle used in the massacre. Law experts say if the case moves forward, it would be the furthest a lawsuit has gone involving a gun manufacturer since Congress passed a law in 2005 that broadly protects gun makers from lawsuits.

It took five minutes for a young man with a gun to kill 20 students and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School. He fired a Bushmaster assault-style rifle with a 30-round magazine clip.

Mark Barden, who lost his son, Daniel, to the gun, said, “This is an instrument of war designed for the battlefield that is sold and marketed to the general public.”

Barden and the other families argue that they can sue the gun maker, Remington, for marketing a deadly weapon to civilians under a Connecticut consumer protection law.

However, Victor Schwartz, who wrote one of the most-taught books on the kind of law that protects consumers and corporations from physical or financial harm, said, “I have never seen it used in this context, and I've written extensively about consumer protection acts.”

Schwartz says a federal law protects gun manufacturers from being sued in most cases when a gun seller knows or should've known that a person would use the gun to cause harm. That's because the gun makers don't know the people that buy their product. Here's another example.

“You have a car and you give it to somebody who's drunk. And then they drive, and if they kill somebody, even though you're not even in the car, you're liable. But Ford Motor Company is not subject to liability if a car is used to kill somebody by a drunk driver. And that's why the manufacturers of guns are not subject to liability.”

But Josh Koskoff, who represents the Newtown families, argues both federal and Connecticut law have room for interpretation, especially if a manufacturer directly markets a product to the public as lethal.

“Can you imagine Ford Motor Company advertising one of their cars to go run over people?”

Koskoff says the manufacturer advertised the rifle with the tag forces of opposition, bow down. So the company should have known that the ad's audience would use that gun for something other than hunting or target practice. Remington's defense lawyer told the court that the ad applies to self-defense. But if the justices side with the Newtown families in the coming weeks, the gun maker could make a rare appearance before a jury.

Cassandra Basler, a former senior editor at WSHU, came to the station by way of Columbia Journalism School in New York City. When she's not reporting on wealth and poverty, she's writing about food and family.