Sandy Hook Lawsuit: Judge Rules Against Gun Companies

Stuffed animals left by mourners sit beneath some of the wooden angel figures placed beside a road near Sandy Hook Elementary School for the victims of the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 16, 2012. A judge on Thursday ruled against three gun companies in their motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought by families affected by the massacre. Mike Segar/Reuters

In a major blow to gun companies, a judge in Connecticut on Thursday denied a motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought by 10 families affected by the December 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School against the maker of the Bushmaster AR-15 rifle used in the shooting.

The three gun companies named in the case had argued for the lawsuit to be dismissed under the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, or PLCAA for short. It's a 2005 federal law that provides gun businesses general immunity from civil lawsuits. Connecticut State Judge Barbara Bellis rejected the gun companies' motion.

The families are suing the maker, distributor and seller of the rifle, which the gunman used to kill 20 first-graders and six educators in Newtown, Connecticut, in less than five minutes on December 14, 2012. They argue the rifle shouldn't have been entrusted to the general public because it is a military-style assault weapon that is unsuited for civilian use. They say the gun companies knew—or should have known—about the high risks posed by the weapon, including the ability for a shooter to use it to inflict maximum casualties and serious injury.

"We are thrilled that the gun companies' motion to dismiss was denied. The families look forward to continuing their fight in court," Josh Koskoff, the plaintiffs' lead attorney, said in a statement.

The families and attorneys for the three gun companies had met for a crucial hearing on February 22. The defense lawyers had argued to dismiss the lawsuit, saying their clients are shielded by PLCAA, which prevents gun violence victims from taking legal action against firearms distributors whose weapons are used in crimes and fatal shootings.

The Sandy Hook case names Remington Arms Co., the manufacturer of the weapon, as well as 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 in 2010.

PLCAA has been a hot-button issue in the Democratic presidential race. Hillary Clinton has called out Bernie Sanders multiple times for his vote in support of PLCAA when he was a member of the House. As a senator from New York at the time, Clinton had voted against it. Sanders continues to defend his decision to support the measure, citing his ties to Vermont and wish to protect mom-and-pop gun shops from legal action. He also cites his D-minus rating from the National Rifle Association, which he says shows he isn't a friend to the gun lobby.

Sanders's interview with the New York Daily News earlier this month struck a chord with many Americans when the editorial board asked him about the Sandy Hook lawsuit and whether he thinks the victims of a gun-related crime should be able to sue the manufacturer.

"No, I don't," he said, explaining that he doesn't think a dealer should face a lawsuit for selling a gun legally to a customer who then misuses the weapon in a crime.

"But I do believe that gun manufacturers and gun dealers should be able to be sued when they should know that guns are going into the hands of wrong people," he added.

Sanders's remarks weren't different from those he made previously on the campaign trail. But they caused a stir as the presidential race converged on New York for its April 19 primary. Connecticut residents also will vote soon, on April 26. Both states have some of the country's strictest gun laws.

Bellis's decision came just hours before the Democrats will face off in a debate in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, less than 100 miles from where the massacre took place at Sandy Hook Elementary.

After the hearing in February, Bellis set April 19 as her deadline to rule on the case. The two sides are expected to meet next on Tuesday afternoon.