Victims of Poway synagogue shooting can sue gun maker, judge rules

People enter Chabad of Poway as two San Diego County sheriff's deputies stand guard
People enter Chabad of Poway for Shabbat services as two San Diego County sheriff’s deputies stand guard in May 2019.
(Hayne Palmour IV / San Diego Union-Tribune)

A California judge decided that victims of the 2019 synagogue shooting near San Diego that killed one worshiper and wounded three can sue the manufacturer of the semiautomatic rifle used in the attack and the gun shop that sold the weapon.

San Diego County Superior Court Judge Kenneth J. Medel said Wednesday that victims and families in the Poway synagogue shooting have adequately alleged that Smith & Wesson, the nation’s largest gun maker, knew its AR-15-style rifle could be easily modified into a machine-gun-like or assault weapon in violation of state law, according to a newspaper report.

A 2005 federal law shields gun makers from damages in most cases for crimes committed with their weapons. But it allows lawsuits if the manufacturer was negligent or knowingly violated a state or federal law.

Medel said the plaintiffs may also be able to sue on their claims that Smith & Wesson negligently marketed the rifle to youths on social media and in video game-style ads, the San Francisco Chronicle reported Thursday.

The judge also said the shop, San Diego Guns, could be sued for selling the weapon to the shooting suspect, John Earnest, who was 19 and lacked a hunting license that would have exempted him from California’s minimum age of 21 for owning long guns.

Prosecutors say Earnest, a nursing student, opened fire with a semiautomatic rifle during the last day of Passover services in April 2019. The attack killed 60-year-old Lori Gilbert-Kaye and wounded three others, including an 8-year-old girl and the rabbi, who lost a finger.

Earnest then allegedly called 911 to say he had shot up a synagogue because Jews were trying to “destroy all white people,” authorities said.


Earnest faces state murder charges carrying a potential death sentence and federal hate-crime charges.

Wednesday’s ruling is a victory for “all Americans who believe that the gun industry is not above the law,” said Jon Lowy, chief counsel for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which sued on behalf of the victims.

Lawyers for Smith & Wesson didn’t immediately respond to the Chronicle’s request for comment.