A court will decide whether or not Bushmaster Firearms can be held responsible for the Sandy Hook massacre because of how it has marketed a military-style weapon to civilians. The case was filed by relatives of nine of the 26 children and adults Adam Lanza killed with a Bushmaster AR-15 rifle in a mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Bushmaster’s lawyers have pointed out that gun used to kill the victims at Sandy Hook was purchased legally by Lanza’s mother more than two years before the shootings.
The plaintiffs’ complaint cites several advertisements from a catalog aimed at civilian gun buyers adorned with action photos of camouflage-clad soldiers and police in body armor. With that type of marketing, the lawsuit claims, “The Bushmaster Defendants attract buyers by extolling the militaristic and assaultive qualities of their AR-15 rifles.” The complaint alleges that in civilian hands, the high-caliber, rapid-fire rifles are essentially killing machines.
Bushmaster argues that the suit is barred under the federal Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA). The act shields the gun industry from liability claims. Congress passed the law after industry complaints of innovative legal attacks that could sue the firearms business out of existence. Many of those lawsuits were brought by cities seeking to hold manufacturers or retailers liable for the costs of gun violence.
Positioning the case as a contest between commercial exploitation and parents mourning murdered children puts enormous pressure on the industry. The enormous expansion of the tactical weapons and accessories market has been a chief engine of growth in the gun business. Much of that expansion is due to the popularity of the AR-15, the semi-automatic civilian version of the U.S. military’s automatic M-16 rifle.
A Connecticut state judge has scheduled a hearing for February 22 on the defendants’ motions to dismiss. If the Superior Court in Bridgeport rejects the defense’s motion to dismiss, then the case moves to the discovery phase. If that happens, Bushmaster has much to lose, as the defense will have to turn over internal documents and expose executives to sworn interrogations. Just entering discovery presents the possibility that industry secrets will be brought to light.
The second argument made by the plaintiffs say that Bushmaster’s marketing is a violation of Connecticut’s unfair trade practices act, which regulates irresponsible advertising. A defendant isn’t protected under PLCAA if a plaintiff can prove a violation of an existing statute “applicable to the sale or marketing of guns.” The plaintiffs argue that the advertising is deceptive and a violation of state law because it uses military imagery to entice civilians to buy the product and then harm others with it. It remains to be seen whether that argument will hold.