Opinion: The wall of invulnerability around U.S. gun manufacturers just crumbled a little

Conn. State Police Det. Barbara J. Mattson with a Bushmaster AR-15 rifle, the same make and model used in the 2012 Sandy Hook School massacre.
Connecticut State Police Det. Barbara J. Mattson with a Bushmaster AR-15 rifle, the same make and model used in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. The Supreme Court has allowed a lawsuit to proceed against manufacturer Remington Arms.
(Jessica Hill / Associated Press)

The wall of invulnerability around U.S. gun manufacturers just cracked a bit.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday allowed a civil lawsuit to proceed against Remington Arms alleging the gunmaker bears some responsibility for the use of its Bushmaster AR-15 style semiautomatic rifle in the shooting deaths of 26 children and teachers massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary School almost seven years ago.

The gunman was 20-year-old Adam Lanza, who killed his mother, then used her legally acquired Bushmaster to shoot up the school. He killed himself as police responded.

The decision has potentially wide-ranging implications. Remington had claimed that it was protected from the civil lawsuit because of controversial elements of the 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act that indemnifies gunmakers from liability in the event their products are used unlawfully to kill or wound people.


The law did, though, open the window for some lawsuits in the event of negligence. In this case, the plaintiffs — relatives of nine people who were killed — argued that Remington was negligent by selling a combat-style firearm to the public in the first place, and that it also intentionally marketed the Bushmaster to young males citing its “assaultive qualities, military uses, and lethality.”

They argue that the gunmaker and dealers who handled the Bushmaster rifle involved in the Sandy Hook massacre reasonably should have known it would be used to kill a large number of people because that is exactly what the gun is designed to do.

It still is a long-odds lawsuit (I wrote when it was filed that it faced an uphill fight), though the odds shortened with the Supreme Court’s rejection of the appeal. Now the case goes back to Connecticut state courts to be tried on its merits — unless, of course, Remington seeks to negotiate a settlement.

But the plaintiffs aren’t looking to squeeze money out of Remington. They want to have the gunmaker held legally responsible for the carnage inflicted with its product. They want to expose the inner workings of Remington in the marketing of the Bushmaster and, by extension, other combat-style firearms to civilians, which has made mass shootings more deadly.

That means depositions seeking internal memos, emails and other records explaining how and why Remington crafted the advertising campaign for selling a weapon of war to civilians like Lanza’s mother.

Wish the plaintiffs luck. If gunmakers are finally held responsible for their irresponsible actions, public safety will be the winner.