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Why lawsuit against Remington could have a ripple effect for gun industry

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court denied an attempt by Remington Arms to block a lawsuit filed by families of the victims of the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, who argue the maker of the AR-15-style rifle should be held liable for its marketing of the military-style weapons. Robert Spitzer, author of “Guns Across America,” joins William Brangham to discuss what the decision means for firearm manufacturers.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    In a blow to the firearms industry, the Supreme Court today denied an attempt by Remington Arms to block a lawsuit filed by the families of victims of the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre.

    The families argue the maker of the AR-15-style rifle should be held liable for the way that it was marketed, its military-style weapons.

    William Brangham has the story.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right Judy.

    The original lawsuit was filed on behalf of 10 victims and one survivor of the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. That's the shooting where 20 first-graders and six adults were killed by one man in just a matter of minutes.

    The suit argues that Remington, which owns the company that made the Bushmaster AR-15-style rifle used by the killer, was guilty of recklessly marketing the weapon, and that that violated Connecticut's Unfair Trade Practices Act. Remington appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court after Connecticut's highest court allowed the lawsuit to proceed.

    For more on all this, I'm joined now by Robert Spitzer. He is the author of several books on gun control policy. And he is also a professor at SUNY Cortland.

    Professor Spitzer, thank you very much for being here.

    Can you just help us understand a little bit more about the argument this these families are making? They're saying Remington was somehow reckless in the way that it marketed these weapons to civilians.

    Please explain.

  • Robert Spitzer:

    Yes.

    Under Connecticut law, there is a provision that allows prosecution of companies if they engage in marketing and sales practices that pose a direct danger. And this is the claim that the families are going after now, that the marketing of these weapons was manifestly oriented around the idea of their destructive capabilities.

    For example, there is a famous phrase, or infamous phrase, that was uttered and has been repeated that you can earn your man card by obtaining an AR-15.

    And it invokes not just manliness, but it suggests a kind of violence. It orients itself towards sort of the military utility of these weapons and the military derivation of them. And, under Connecticut law, that is prosecutable.

    And I should add that there is a federal law that was passed by Congress in 2005 that was designed to provide immunity to the gun industry from such lawsuits. But even that law had a couple of exceptions, including an exception saying that, if a gun manufacturer, for example, was found to have engaged in activity that are illegal, they could be subject to prosecution.

    And the Connecticut state court ruled that this could proceed, this lawsuit could proceed, under that exception in the federal law. And now, of course, the Supreme Court has said that the lawsuit in Connecticut can go ahead, by not hearing the case appeal.

  • William Brangham:

    Back to this issue of these ads, though, help me understand. Walk me through the argument as it follows through.

    So, the families are arguing that these hyper-macho, masculine ads that the company was running somehow entices people who are violent-minded to buy these weapons, and that that is somehow the problem?

  • Robert Spitzer:

    Well, it extols the weapon's destructive capabilities.

    And, certainly, there is a great deal of firepower that accompanies a weapon like the AR-15. It is a semiautomatic weapon, but it can receive large-capacity magazines. You can fire off a great many rounds. Medical professionals will tell you that they cause even more harm to the human body than other kinds of firearms.

    And this kind of invocation, the litigants are arguing, constitutes an actual threat, precisely because the appeal is, oh, these weapons are so destructive, and, therefore, this is a violation of what they call in the Connecticut law negligent entrustment.

    And that breach, that claim is the center of this lawsuit.

  • William Brangham:

    So, the Supreme Court denied Remington's appeal. That means the case will go forward, as you were mentioning, in Connecticut.

    What do you imagine the likely impact this might have? I know there is an elaborate discovery process. What are the ripple effects of this case, potentially?

  • Robert Spitzer:

    Well, I think there are a couple of very important consequences. The first, just as you mentioned, is discovery.

    It means that the plaintiffs will be able to get access to e-mails, company documents, other information of internal communications from Remington that could be at the least politically embarrassing or damaging, and at the most could actually contribute significantly to the weight of the lawsuit being brought against them.

    In addition, it will certainly embolden others to bring similar litigation. All states of the union have laws regarding consumer protection in advertising. And the laws in many of those states may not be appropriate for this kind of litigation, but it certainly will encourage others interested in bringing such suits to do so.

    It might also encourage some state legislatures to modify their consumer protection laws, perhaps to facilitate legal action of this nature.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Robert Spitzer of SUNY Cortland, thank you very much.

  • Robert Spitzer:

    Good to be with you.

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