Remington Arms, a manufacturer of the AR-15 rifle — used by Adam Lanza to kill 27 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 — argued in court Monday that because they didn't put the gun in the hands of the shooter they shouldn't be held liable for the carnage.
The gunmaker's comments came during a key hearing to determine if a lawsuit brought by victims' families will go forward. The defendants also include gun distributor Camfour and Riverview Sales, the store where the mother of the shooter, Nancy Lanza, purchased the high-powered rifle for her son.
The defendants have argued the case should be stricken under a 2005 federal law protecting firearms dealers from liability when one of their products ends up in the hands of a criminal committing a crime.
But the Sandy Hook families say the law, known as the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, does not absolve the defendants of wrongdoing because, as dealers of the gun, they were negligent in how they marketed what they call a military-grade, weapon of war to civilians.
In arguments Monday, James Vogts, a defense attorney for Remington, said what the plaintiffs sought to create “an absolute liability” scheme.
“The manufacturer is two, three times removed from the sale,” Vogts said.
The defense added that plaintiffs hadn't sufficiently defined Remington as a seller and that Camphor, the distributor, was merely making sure the gun arrived on Riverview Sales’ shelf. And in defense of Riverview, attorneys said that the store was also not negligent since the gun was legally sold to Nancy Lanza.
“The firearm was used by Adam Lanza, it wasn’t used by Nancy Lanza, Campfor, or Remington,” Vogts said.
“It’s very clear that Nancy Lanza never visited the Sandy Hook school with a firearm,” added Peter Barry, counsel for Riverview Sales.
The crowd inside the Bridgeport, Connecticut courtroom, made up of many of the plaintiffs and their family members, stirred as Barry added that he was unsure if Nancy Lanza was aware of the “negative mental effects” of her son — who was on the autism spectrum and struggled at school and in social situations — at the time she bought the AR-15.
Josh Koskoff, lead attorney for the Sandy Hook families, presented a “top-down” argument for holding the makers and distributors liable along — with the dealers at the retail level.
“If there wasn’t a manufacturer pushing this weapon…there would be no distributors or civilians,” Koskoff argued.
Koskoff added that when Remington sells the gun to a civilian distributor like Camphor, they know “it’s going to end up” in the hands of a civilian.
The plaintiffs in this case are seeking access to the defendants’ marketing materials that they believe will prove that the defendants were highlighting the high powered and military-grade aspects of the AR-15 to sell more guns.
“[AR-15s] endured as the U.S. military’s weapon of choice for more than 50 years — so what was it doing on the floor of an elementary school?” Koskoff said.
During the hearing, Judge Barbara Bellis debated situations with the defendants where a gun seller could be held liable for a sale that resulted in a criminal act. At one point, the defendants referenced the recent events in Orlando, where a gun store reportedly chose to not to sell ammunition to gunman Omar Mateen because he appeared to be suspicious. The defense said that is an example of a scenario where a dealer knew that would be a negligent decision, but chose not to make the sale.
“I don’t think that’s the case that we have here,” said Barry.
Bellis debated this idea of an evolving attitude towards these guns — invoking the idea of a change in the public opinion on the dangers of cigarettes — in asking the defendants how they would have her weigh the question of legality versus safety.
The defendants also reminded the court that Nancy Lanza bought the weapon around March 2010, when it was a legal sale at the time. Connecticut has since banned the purchase of AR-15 and other high-powered rifles in response to the shooting at Sandy Hook.
“Yes, norms do change with time, but in 2010…these types of firearms could be lawfully owned by adult residents,” Vogts told the court.
He added that a change in the law moreover “fuels argument that these are legislative issues.”
The defense also argued that Connecticut’s two Democratic senators, Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal, shared the gun industry’s opinion that the safety issue of guns should be resolved by lawmakers. The U.S. Senate is slated to vote on four gun control amendments on Monday.
Bellis will have 120 days to decide whether or not the case goes forward. The judge has already set a 2018 trial date and that the discovery of evidence could move forward. And while it hasn’t started yet, if discovery were to proceed, the Sandy Hook families would gain access to gun industry marketing materials that they feel make their case the gun companies valued profits over public safety.