AR-15 Manufacturer Seeks to Have Lawsuit Filed by Families of Sandy Hook Victims Thrown Out

Mathew Soto, whose sister Victoria was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting on December 14, 2012, speaks to the media outside of the Fairfield County Courthouse in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on June 20. There, the maker of the gun used in the massacre of 26 children and educators at the Connecticut elementary school will ask a judge to toss out a lawsuit saying the weapon never should have been sold to a civilian. Mike Segar/Reuters

A judge on Monday heard arguments to decide whether a lawsuit brought by families affected by the December 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre against companies that make and sold the AR-15 rifle—which the shooter used to kill 26 individuals—should move forward.

A survivor and nine families are suing Remington Arms Co., the maker of the Bushmaster AR-15, as well as the distributor and seller of the rifle, which authorities said the gunman used to kill 20 first-graders and six educators in less than five minutes on the morning of December 14, 2012, at the school in Newtown, Connecticut. The rifle is similar to the firearm used just eight days ago to kill 49 people at the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Florida. That massacre, the worst shooting in U.S. history, reignited the demand from Democrats and activists to ban assault weapons and hold gun manufacturers responsible for crimes.

Mathew Soto was 15 when his sister, Victoria Soto—whom he referred to as his "hero" and "second mother"—was killed in her classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary. When he heard about the Orlando massacre, "so many emotions went through me, from horror to sadness to grief and disgust," he told reporters outside of the courthouse in Bridgeport, Connecticut, shortly before the hearing began Monday morning. About a dozen other individuals affected by the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre attended the hearing, including Nicole Hockley and Mark Barden, who both lost their sons, and Bill Sherlach, whose wife, Mary—the school psychologist—also was killed.

"No other family should have to sit for six hours and wait to hear if their loved one is alive or dead," Soto said, referring to the time he spent in between the shooting and waiting to find out whether his sister survived. "But yet so many families have to go through that process in this country. Because our country cannot come together on the issues of assault rifles, these mass shootings will continue to happen."

"I know the firsthand effects of an assault rifle," Soto said, adding that the Sandy Hook families are standing in solidarity with the victims of the Orlando massacre.

"Our actions here are meant to bring about change," he said outside of the courthouse. "We will continue to fight for change. We are Newtown, and we are Orlando."

Monday's 3.5-hour hearing at the Fairfield County Courthouse, about 20 miles from where the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre occurred, was the most recent challenge from the defendants' lawyers. The legal action brought by the families was first filed in December 2014, two years after the shooting. Both sides presented their arguments to Superior Court Judge Barbara Bellis in response to the defense's motion to throw out the case. Bellis in April refused to dismiss the lawsuit, and set the trial for April 3, 2018. In May, she ruled the families can proceed in obtaining internal documents from Remington.

The lawsuit names Remington, 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.

On Monday, the plaintiffs' lead attorney, Josh Koskoff, argued the AR-15 rifle has "unreasonable risk" because it was designed by the military to inflict mass casualties. He said the weapon shouldn't have been entrusted to the general public because it is the "gold-standard" in military-style assault weapons, "designed to be used in combat" and is unsuited for civilian use. He said the companies knew—or should have known—about the high risks posed by the rifle, including the ability for a shooter to use it to quickly inflict more wounds with greater severity.

"There it was, not lying in a battlefield, but in Vicki Soto's classroom," Koskoff said in the courtroom, which was so filled with victims' families and the media that a dozen people stood in the doorway to listen to the hearing. "It got there by deliberate and conscious choices. It was Remington's choice."

The legislation at the center of the case is the 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. The 2005 shield law has received attention during the presidential election because Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders supported the legal protections for the industry, while Democratic presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton opposed it.

James Vogts, a lawyer representing Remington, argued the decade-old measure was enacted to prevent such a case. He asked Judge Bellis: "If the PLCAA doesn't prohibit this case against Remington, the manufacturer, what kind of case would it prohibit?

"The plaintiffs are expanding a negative entrustment action in ways that Connecticut courts never recognized and no court in this country has ever recognized that a product manufacturer two and three steps removed from an actual retail sale, the actual supplier of the product could be negligible for entrusting the product," Vogts said.

But in his oral argument, Koskoff said it's not enough for the manufacturer to say it's passed to the distributor and seller because then the rifle is sold to civilians.

"They know exactly where it's going to end up in the big picture of things," Koskoff said.

Vogts said it's not the role of a court or an eventual jury "to decide whether civilians as a broad class of people are not appropriate to own these kinds of firearms."

Vogts also said the plaintiffs have issue with characteristics of the rifle, including its design and rapid-fire capability, and the marketing campaigns the company uses to appeal to civilians.

"[But] those are all product liability claims," he told the courtroom.

Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old gunman, obtained the rifle from the Newtown home he shared with his mother, Nancy Lanza. He first killed her, then drove to Sandy Hook Elementary on the morning of his rampage, where he shot his way into the locked building, then proceeded to kill 26 people, and then himself. Christopher Renzulli, the attorney representing Camfour, the distributor, argued that the rifle was lawfully sold to Nancy Lanza.

Before he entered the courthouse earlier on Monday morning, Koskoff questioned how much longer gun companies will prioritize profits over sensibility. "How many more Newtowns, how many more San Bernardinos and how many more Auroras and Orlandos—and probably in six months we can add another name to the list—until the Remingtons of the world say, 'You know what? It just isn't worth it anymore?'" he asked. "It's not a legal question; it's a moral one."

At one point during the hearing, Bellis questioned whether she should consider the legality of assault rifles and whether her decision should change depending on the current status of a product under the law, similar to cigarettes. She cited the former 10-year federal assault weapons ban that expired in 2004, as well as Connecticut's ban on firearms. In the months following the Newtown massacre, Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy signed into law a historic gun bill that added more than 100 firearms to the state's existing ban on assault weapon-types of firearms.

Roughly 300 miles away, in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday denied hearing a challenge against Connecticut's ban on assault weapons—leaving the state's restriction in effect. And at 5:30 p.m., the U.S. Senate was scheduled to begin voting on gun-violence prevention measures in the wake of Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy's nearly 15-hour filibuster last week to persuade his Republican colleagues to allow two votes: one to prohibit suspected terrorists from buying guns, and another to expand background checks on potential gun purchases.

Bellis now has 120 days, or until mid-October, to rule on the defense's motion to strike the case. Regardless of whether she rules, both sides will reconvene in court July 28 to discuss the issue of discovery—whether internal communications about Remington's marketing strategies and how they engineer guns and get them to fire so quickly—will be public.