Yesterday’s decision by a Connecticut judge that will allow a lawsuit by families of Sandy Hook victims against the makers of the rifle used by killer Adam Lanza to proceed could pose a threat far bigger than the immediate one to Remington and Bushmaster.
If firearms manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers can be held responsible for the actions of people over whom they have no control, the same standards could theoretically be used against other industries. Imagine legal actions against manufacturers of such common items as baseball bats, chainsaws or knives because someone uses one of these instruments to commit a heinous act.
The case challenges the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), passed by Congress in 2005 as a response to a series of so-called “junk lawsuits” filed against the gun industry. Nine families of Sandy Hook victims, and one survivor are involved in the Connecticut lawsuit. The judge’s ruling, which may be read here, was hailed by plaintiffs’ attorneys.
The gun prohibition lobby may be salivating this morning over the prospects of winning this lawsuit. This is the same lobby that uses the term “common sense” to justify any manner of gun control, up to bans on certain classes of firearms.
Perhaps it is “common sense” that is on trial. Consider the facts in this case.
“Suing gun makers and gun stores for selling a weapon used by a deranged young man to slaughter people is not unlike suing the maker and seller of a car that a demented driver slams into a crowd of people.”-USA Today editorial, April 13
The Sandy Hook lawsuit, as explained by the Wall Street Journal, appears to focus on an exception to the PLCAA called a “negligent entrustment claim.” According to the newspaper, “Under such a claim, a seller can be held liable for supplying a product to a person it reasonably could have known posed a risk to themselves or others.”
But Adam Lanza, who killed 26 children and staff at the school in December 2012, didn’t buy the rifle. His mother, Nancy, was the buyer. She appears to have complied with Connecticut and federal laws when she bought the gun from Riverview Sales, Inc., in east Windsor, Conn. She did not commit the crime, and was actually Adam’s first victim. He murdered her at their home and took her guns to the school.
This raises what should be the most important question about this case. How could Remington, Bushmaster, Riverview or firearms distributor Camfour, Inc., possibly know or even suspect that the firearm Nancy Lanza bought would later be used by her son – who was not their customer and, with the possible exception of the gun shop, they probably didn’t even know existed – to commit mass murder?
According to the 18-page decision by Connecticut Superior Court Judge Barbara Bellis, “(Adam) Lanza…used the weapon, which was designed for military use and engineered to deliver maximum carnage with extreme efficiency.” Experienced gun owners would quickly rebut that argument, noting that the firearm in question, a Bushmaster AR-15 rifle, was not designed for military use at all, but only resembles such a firearm. The AR-15 is a semi-auto rifle designed for sport and utility purposes, including hunting, competition, recreation and even home defense.
The ruling also states, “The plaintiffs further allege that the defendants, all makers and sellers of the Bushmaster XM15-E2S, know that civilians are unfit to operate AR-15s…” Millions of AR-15 owners are veterans of the armed forces, and are certainly “fit” to operate such rifles. Many are currently civilian law enforcement. Millions more are simply private citizens who have grown up around such firearms and use them for the purposes detailed above.
Even USA Today editorialized against such lawsuits. Two days ago, the newspaper stated, “Suing gun makers and gun stores for selling a weapon used by a deranged young man to slaughter people is not unlike suing the maker and seller of a car that a demented driver slams into a crowd of people.”
Forget Remington and think pickup trucks. Yesterday, a 19-year-old man driving a Dodge 4X4 pickup on a suspended license plowed into several Maple Valley middle school students before crashing into some bushes. Should the driver, who reportedly has a “history of seizures,” according to the Seattle Times, be held responsible for this crash, or will the families of those youngsters sue the truck manufacturer and the car dealer?
Some may think it ironic that plaintiffs in the Connecticut case want to use what might be called “a loophole” in the PLCAA to hold the firearms industry liable for crimes committed by people using their products. Gun control proponents have long complained about “loopholes” that allow people to exercise their Second Amendment rights without having some government agency crawl all over their privacy.
Proponents of the Connecticut lawsuit think it will create a fracture in the PLCAA. What could be the unintended consequence from this is that they might really open Pandora’s Box.
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