Connecticut’s Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the manufacturer of the Bushmaster AR-15 rifle can be sued and potentially held liable in connection with the 2012 mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
The groundbreaking 4-to-3 decision overturned a lower-court ruling barring the lawsuit, which was brought by the estates of nine victims of Adam Lanza, who was armed with the high-powered rifle during his assault on the school. Remington owns Bushmaster Firearms International.
The families argued, among other things, that the rifle’s manufacturer and distributor negligently allowed and encouraged civilians to use a weapon suitable only for military and law enforcement use.
The firearms company had convinced a lower court that a federal law enacted in 2005 limited the liability of firearms manufacturers and dealers, immunizing them entirely from legal responsibility for the acts of people using the weapons they sell.
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The Connecticut high court disagreed on extremely narrow grounds, treating it as a case of illegal advertising.
It said the suit, which seeks unspecified damages for each death, could go forward under that state’s Unfair Trade Practices Act, a statute aimed at harmful marketing, in this case marketing not of the weapon itself but the use of the weapon as a potential tool for “offensive military style combat” by civilians, which is illegal.
Twenty first-grade children and six adults were killed and two others were wounded in the attack on Dec. 14, 2012. The Bushmaster that Lanza used had been sold to his mother, according to court documents.
“The number of lives lost in those 264 seconds was made possible by the shooter’s weapon of choice,” the plaintiffs said in their lawsuit. “Plaintiffs seek nothing more and nothing less than accountability” for Bushmaster’s choice to “continue profiting” from selling and marketing the weapon for civilian use, the suit said.
Among the allegations in the lawsuit was that the gun manufacturers and dealers knowingly marketed the weapon’s use to carry out deadly missions against “perceived enemies,” as the court said.
Such use of the Bushmaster or any weapon would be illegal, it added, and “Connecticut law does not permit advertisements that promote or encourage violent, criminal behavior.”
The federal law, called the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, does immunize makers of firearms from liability for crimes committed by people using their weapons, the court agreed.
But it said that “we also conclude that Congress has not clearly manifested an intent to extinguish the traditional authority of our legislature and our courts to protect the people of Connecticut from the pernicious practices alleged in the present case.”
“The regulation of advertising that threatens the public’s health, safety, and morals has long been considered a core exercise of the states’ police powers,” the court ruled.