Sandy Hook Parents Call Out Bernie Sanders for Gunmaker Liability Comments

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Mark Barden, left, his wife Jackie and their daughter Natalie hold a photo of their son Daniel, a victim of the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, during the launch of the Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit created in response to the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, on January 14, 2013. Michelle McLoughlin/Reuters

The parents of a first-grader killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, have penned an op-ed to call out Bernie Sanders for his comments about gunmakers’ liability at the March 6 Democratic presidential debate.

Mark and Jackie Barden’s son Daniel was one of 20 first-graders killed at the elementary school on December 14, 2012. They are among 10 families suing the manufacturer, distributor and seller of the Bushmaster AR-15 rifle used by the gunman to kill the students and six educators in less than five minutes. They are seeking to hold accountable Remington Arms Co., the manufacturer of the weapon; Camfour Inc., a distributor of firearms; and Riverview Gun Sales, the now-defunct dealer in East Windsor, Connecticut, that sold the rifle to the shooter’s mother.

A judge is deciding whether the lawsuit will move forward in light of the 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), which prevents gun violence victims from taking legal action against firearms distributors whose weapons are used in crimes and fatal shootings.

During the March 6 debate, Sanders said he agrees that manufacturers should be held liable if they realize they’re selling firearms to criminals. “But,” he added, “if they are selling a product to a person who buys it legally, what you’re really talking about is ending gun manufacturing in America. I don’t agree with that.”

The lawsuit, the Bardens said in an op-ed posted online Friday by The Washington Post and published in Sunday’s newspaper, “is not about handguns or hunting rifles, and the success of our lawsuit would not mean the end of firearm manufacturing in this country, as Sanders warned. This case is about the AR-15 because the AR-15 is not an ordinary weapon.”

The families and their lawyers argue the rifle shouldn’t have been entrusted to the general public because it’s a military-style assault weapon unsuited for civilian use. They say the companies should have known about the high risks posed by the rifle.

PLCAA has become a contentious issue on the campaign trail, with Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton calling out her opponent for supporting the measure during his time in Congress. Sanders, a senator from Vermont, continuously defends his record, saying he wishes to protect mom-and-pop gun shops in his rural state from legal responsibility. 

Earlier this year, congressional Democrats and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence introduced a bill that seeks to repeal PLCAA. Sanders vowed to co-sponsor the measure.

During a court hearing on February 22, lawyers representing the companies asked the judge to dismiss the lawsuit because they believe their clients are shielded by PLCAA. But the plaintiffs said that one of six exemptions included in PLCAA—a “negligent entrustment” clause—allows them to take legal action. 

The two sides are scheduled to meet in court again on April 19. In the meantime, Fairfield District Superior Court Judge Barbara Bellis could rule whether the case will proceed to trial.

“We have never suggested that Remington should be held liable simply for manufacturing the AR-15,” the Bardens said. “But Remington is responsible for its calculated choice to sell that same weapon to the public, and for emphasizing the military and assaultive capacities of the weapon in its marketing to civilians.”