The announcement earlier this week of a historic $73 million settlement with the families of nine of those killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012 might seem like a cynical cash swap for avoid admitting guilt. After all, by paying what is believed to be the largest sum ever paid to a weapons manufacturer in a mass shooting, Remington Arms, the company that manufactured and marketed the assault weapon used in the mass murder of 26 people, including 20 freshmen, made no mention of responsibility.
Even though this result is the result of an agreement between the parties and not a trial verdict – and does not include a claim of liability – the result is a watershed moment.
But this interpretation misses the historical significance of the case. Even though this result is the result of an agreement between the parties and not of a trial verdict – and does not include a claim of liability – the result is a watershed moment that will surely reverberate at the headquarters of each manufacturer. weapons, especially those who manufacture and sell assault weapons.
The multi-year legal saga began as a long-running effort, hampered by the unique protection for gun manufacturers that Congress enacted in 2005. Called the Lawful Arms Trade Protection Act, the law virtually barred lawsuits civil. against the arms industry. It did include a few exceptions, however, including for sales and marketing practices that violate federal or state law.
And Connecticut happens to have an unusual consumer law, the Unfair Trade Practices Act, which allows for legal action against companies that engage in irresponsible marketing of their products — in this case by “promoting the illegal military use of the rifle by civilians,” according to the Giffords Center, a gun safety group. (New York enacted a similar law in 2021.)
Potential buyers of weapons like Remington’s Bushmaster AR-15 rifle – the weapon used at Sandy Hook – have been urged to “consider your re-issued man card”, along with similar militaristic marketing which, according to plaintiffs, had a particular appeal for troubled young men like the Sandy Hook shooter. The resulting monetary settlement represented the maximum insurance payout available. In this regard, it is a sanction that speaks for itself.
Perhaps more importantly, however, the deal includes the public release of thousands of pages of internal Remington documents. Disclosure of documents was so important to the families that, as their attorney put it, “no documents, no deal.”
When the judge in the case ruled that the prosecution could proceed, including the discovery phase, it allowed plaintiffs’ attorneys to open the lid on the company’s internal communications. Public disclosure of candid corporate discussions about how best to sell the company’s weapons could at least be embarrassing, and at worst confirm his guilt under Connecticut law.
The settlement means gunmakers will not only rethink their ad campaigns, but also possibly whether they want to continue making and selling assault weapons due to their vulnerability to future lawsuits.
A few companies have already taken this direction. After the 2018 Parkland School Massacre, in which the shooter also used an assault weapon, national sporting goods retailer Dick’s Sporting Goods announced it would stop selling assault weapons. Walmart announced the same earlier and Kroger stopped selling guns and ammunition in its Fred Meyer stores. Yet the profitability of assault weapons, tied in part to militaristic marketing, retains strong appeal in the firearms world, although a few gun companies, such as Kimber Arms, have shunned the assault weapons market. .
Assault gun advocates point out that they are very popular among legitimate gun owners and are rarely used in crimes. In 2020, for example, almost 60% of all murders were committed with handguns, while assault weapons accounted for 3% or less. Still, assault weapons represent increased damage.
First, assault weapons are disproportionately used in mass shootings, having been used in more than a third of these events. Second, assault weapons are more lethal than other firearms, both due to their firing capabilities (the speed and action of bullets after they exit the barrel) and their ability to receive magazines high capacity ammunition (frequently used in mass shootings). And third, assault weapons have increasingly become the de facto symbol and weapon of choice for the most radical, aggressive and heavily armed extremist groups that have appeared in numerous protests across the country in recent years. .
The massive Sandy Hook settlement is unlikely to result in significant changes in public policy, except perhaps a few more states could pass a law similar to Connecticut’s. California and New Jersey are reportedly considering such measures. But the country’s current political polarization and relative paralysis make changes in gun policy unlikely in the foreseeable future. And while similar lawsuits are possible, a flood of such litigation is unlikely given the unique set of circumstances that must apply, such as those that came together in the Sandy Hook case.
The settlement, however, will still have significant consequences. At its core, this indicates that there are ways to solve America’s gun problems outside of passing laws. Some narrow avenues exist for litigation as companies increasingly distance themselves from the gun industry and gun rights organizations such as the National Rifle Association. The next time a case hits the courts, it could even push the arms makers to face their guilt.