On Dec. 14, 2012, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, entered Sandy Hook Elementary School armed with an AR-15 style Bushmaster rifle, firing 154 rounds in five minutes. The weapon had been legally purchased by his mother, Nancy Lanza, whom he also killed. Benjamin Wheeler was one of two children fatally shot, and since his tragic death, his family has worked hard to change the federal laws regarding guns.
This week, the families of all 26 victims who were killed in the shooting will be in Hartford listening to attorneys present their case before the state Supreme Court to petition the companies that manufactured and sold the AR-15 style Bushmaster assault rifle used by the gunman to bear responsibility. The families are hoping that the attorneys will change the current landscape of federal laws which protect gun companies from litigation. Supporters believe that if a jury trial is allowed the gun companies’ internal communications would surface in discovery. These may prove to be revealing with regard to the way in which the industry operates.
“It doesn’t make any sense at all that these products are free of liability,” Benjamin’s father David Wheeler said. “It’s not a level playing field. It’s not American capitalistic business practice as we know it. It’s just not right.”
The court has been inundated with amicus briefs with comments from both sides of the fence – from gun control advocates, doctors, and gun-rights organizations. The National Rifle Association argued that allowing the case to move forward may “eviscerate” the gun companies’ legal protections. Gun Owners of America stated: “Plaintiffs’ brief illustrates the views of those who may never have even laid eyes on the weapons they vilify much less squeezed off a few rounds at the range, like millions of peaceful, law-abiding Americans regularly do.” The state attorney general, gun violence prevention groups, trauma surgeons, and a statewide association of school superintendents were among those writing in support of the families’ case.
In 2005, Congress passed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which restricted lawsuits against gun sellers and gun makers by granting immunity from blame when one of the companies’ products is used in a crime. The law does allow exceptions for sale and marketing practices that violate state or federal laws and instances of negligent entrustment.
“It’s like the world has thrown up Exhibit A for the plaintiffs’ argument,” said Heidi Li Feldman, a Georgetown University law professor. But, those who oppose the efforts argue that case, filed by families of nine people who were killed and one teacher who was shot, but survived, represents exactly what the federal protections are in place to prevent.
The filing was taken to the Connecticut Supreme Court after a lower court dismissed it last year. The previous court ruled that the allegations fell “squarely within the broad immunity” provided by current federal laws. The Newtown families are for the first time broadening the scope to include the gun’s manufacturer, Remington, which, along with a wholesaler and a local retailer, are all named in the suit.