4 weeks ago
When family members and survivors of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School filed suit against Bushmaster in December 2014, it seemed a lot like a lost cause. After all, a 2005 federal law called the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA) was designed to prevent people from holding gun manufacturers accountable for wrongful deaths. Even last week, when a Connecticut judge shot down a motion to dismiss the suit, experts said she was just delaying an inevitable dismissal later down the line.
But then last Tuesday, that same judge, Barbara Bellis, of Connecticut’s Superior Court, issued another ruling that determined the suit would be more than symbolic. Specifically, she said the discovery process could begin immediately and set a tentative trial date for April 3, 2018. A jury hearing the case would be historic, but Katherine Mesner-Hage, an attorney for the plaintiffs, says that getting the gun company to open its books for discovery is arguably just as huge.
That’s because she and her co-council have constructed a creative PLCAA exemption, claiming, in essence, that the gun Adam Lanza used in the Sandy Hook massacre was specifically marketed as a killing machine. As part of discovery, they’ll dig through the gunmaker’s internal company memos and try to prove that the company was negligent.
I spoke to Mesner-Hage about how the gun industry became so protected from civil suits, what she and the other lawyers for the Sandy Hook survivors hope to find in discovery, and how their legal strategy is similar to the one used against Big Tobacco in the 90s.
VICE: What are you hoping to find in discovery that will be such a big deal?
Katherine Mesner-Hage: We’re looking for documents, and we’re looking to depose key people at Remington especially, but also at the distributor and the retail level. We’re asking for internal memos about how to market the AR-15 and how to market specifically the patrolman’s carbine, which is the one that Adam Lanza used.
We want to depose the head of marketing. We want to talk to the people at the company who are making the decisions about marketing. That’s how we build our case, although the marketing speaks for itself on one level. This is our chance to kind of peel back the curtain and see what’s really going on. One of the things about discovery in general is that you don’t know what you’re looking for before you start.
Has any other case against a gun company gotten to the discovery stage since PLCAA was passed? What are the broader implications of this recent decision?
I can’t think of any case that’s gotten to the point in which discovery was open in the post-PLCAA era.
Nothing good can come from this. As I have said before, the Sandy Hook Families aren’t entitled to that information and the case has no merit.
I know what they’re after. As I have documented before, the law protects firearms manufacturers, but excepts cases where there is “negligent entrustment.” I recall thinking as I read this, “this is an oddball exception.” The reason that it is odd is that firearms manufacturers don’t sell to customers. They sell to distributors who then sell to stores (some manufacturers sell directly online, but go through a local FFL, e.g., Rock River Arms, LaRue Tactical, etc.).
They are thinking that this exception, the negligent entrustment clause, has not been tested in court and still need fleshing out as to its real definition. But I don’t agree with lawsuits against gun manufacturers any more than I agree with Tobacco companies being sued over lung cancer. Evil actions such as was perpetrated that day redound to federal headship in Adam, original sin, and the volitional decision to commit wicked acts. Marketing has nothing to do with it.
Back in 2005 when I was headed for a professional conference in Chattanooga, Tennessee, I left Charlotte, N.C. that day and headed towards Western North Carolina. Instead of driving one of those put-put-put cars companies like to put you in, the car rental agency apologized and told me that the only car left on the lot for me that day was a brand new 2005 Ford Mustang GT. I recalled laughing out loud to the puzzlement of the sales clerk. Little did she know, I thought.
I drove towards Murphy, N.C., and past the NOC (Nantahala Outdoor Center), and on the curvy roads past all of those TVA dams, curve after curve after curve, in a brand new Ford Mustang GT. It was a great day, that Sunday, and I exceeded the posted speed limit by a wide margin. A wide margin. But I didn’t do anything unsafe, and I didn’t cause additional risk for anyone else on the road.
Or perhaps I’m lying or simply a bad judge of risk. If I had harmed anything or anyone that day, it wouldn’t have been a great day, and I would have been responsible for it. Ford’s marketing of its 2005 Mustang GT had nothing whatsoever to do with my decision to exceed the posted speed limit.
And Adam Lanza is in hell for what he did since he didn’t know Jesus Christ as his savior and advocate before the Father. I’m certain that the parents have bitterness and heartache over what happened. But they’re taking it out on the wrong person, the wrong company, the wrong workers, the wrong objects. They are poorly trained, theologically and philosophically, and besides that badly mistaken that marketing carbines to young males is somehow responsible for the deaths of their loved ones (witness Charles Whitman who used a bolt action rifle, the best option for his choice of locations).
These parents are in danger of harm to their own souls with this continued blame of the wrong people. The lawyers are going to get rich, and the judge is a wicked woman and will receive her just recompense eventually, and perhaps sooner.