Column: Sandy Hook lawsuit demands accountability, shows promise

Erica Smegielski, whose mother Dawn Hochsprung was principal of Sandy Hook Elementary School, and was killed in the December 2012 shooting at the school in Newtown, Conn., speaks during Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's campaign event, Thursday, April 21, 2016, in Hartford, Conn. Clinton stopped in Hartford for a discussion on gun violence prevention with family members of gun violence victims. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

Gun control activists who have sought both executive and legislative remedies are now pursuing yet another avenue with promise: the courts. 

The plaintiffs in a potentially precedent-setting case are lead by Mark Barden and Nicole Hockley, two parents from Newtown, Connecticut. who both lost their sons in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting. Barden and Hockley are seeking to sue the manufacturer, distributor and dealer of the Bushmaster AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, the military-style assault weapon used by assailant Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook.

The plaintiffs contend that production and marketing of a military style weapon to civilians was not only negligent, but created an “unreasonably high risk” for which the gun manufacturer must be held accountable. 

The 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, signed by President George Bush and incessantly lobbied for by the National Rifle Association as “the most significant piece of pro gun legislation in 20 years,” granted vast immunity for gun companies against such lawsuits.

The act included narrow exceptions that have been used in the past to sue gun dealers, but never gun manufacturers such as in this case, including cause of “negligent entrustment,” defined by the law as when the company “knows, or should reasonably know, the person to whom the product is supplied is likely to, and does, use the product in a manner involving unreasonable risk to physical injury to the person or others.”

On April 14, Connecticut Superior Court Judge Barbara Belis ruled against Bushmaster’s claim that the lawsuit should be dismissed under this federal law’s immunity, allowing the discovery stage to proceed. Although the defendants claimed they filed a “motion to stay,” or delay the discovery, within the next few days, Judge Belis set a trial date in April 2018. 

Now in the discovery process, plaintiffs have the critical ability to demand internal documents from the gun companies involved in the manufacturing, distribution, and dealing of the Bushmaster AK-15 as well as depose executives to build their case, according to the Hartford Courant

Not only the manufacturing of a gun with such assaultive power for non-military purposes, but the deliberate marketing to civilians, is not just negligent but morally irresponsible and demands accountability. The court’s decision will depend on the interpretation of what constitutes as “negligent entrustment.”

Reading the Sandy Hook plaintiffs’ complaint, however, “the AR-15 was designed as a military weapon. Born out of the exigencies of modern combat, the AR-15 was engineered to deliver maximum carnage with extreme efficiency…. (and) had little utility for legitimate civilian purposes.” According to the complaint, even those soldiers using the AR-15 in the military undergo intensive training. 

Feigning any actual civilian purpose, the marketing and advertisement methods used by the gun companies are truly sickening. Examples include “Force of opposition, bow down. You are single-handedly outnumbered”; “One rifle for an infinite number of extreme purpose”; “Consider your man card reissued.”

It takes no stretch of the imagination or hindsight bias to see how an individual, like Adam Lanza, was especially susceptible to this message. “I think that who they (gun companies) are focusing on in their advertisements are young men that do not feel manly and secure, and who are disenfranchised with their lives and maybe feel powerless,” Jackie Barden, mother of one of the victims, told The Guardian, “[Lanza] didn’t have a lot of power. This was his way to show his power.” 

In the 2008 D.C. v Heller decision, the Supreme Court confirmed a individual right to gun ownership, largely justified in terms of self-defense and pertaining to “traditionally lawful purposes.” Those in favor of gun immunity in this lawsuit distort this right, in addition to denying the legal and moral responsibility to keep us safe, as well as the clear financial interests of the National Rifle Association and the gun industry. 

The strength of the families of Sandy Hook victims to continue fighting across a variety of public venues in addition to the court, despite the depth of their grief, is truly remarkable – and grounded in the belief that not only must we try to prevent similar tragedies, but that we can. Holding gun companies accountable as proposed in this lawsuit is one such example.


Marissa Piccolo is associate opinion editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marissa.piccolo@uconn.edu. She tweets @marissapiccolo.