The Sandy Hook Lawsuit: What It Means for Victims of Gun Violence

A gun that was found at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, is pictured in this evidence photo released by the Connecticut State Police on December 27, 2013. Ten families affected by the 2012 massacre are suing the gun companies that manufactured and sold the rifle to the shooter’s mother. Connecticut State Police/Handout/Reuters

It was a major loss for the firearms industry and a cause of celebration for victims of gun violence. A state judge in Connecticut refused to dismiss a case against firearms companies on Thursday brought by relatives of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting.

At the center of the case is a 2005 law called the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act. For more than a decade, the legislation has prevented most victims of gun violence and their families from suing firearms companies. But there's an exemption to the law for negligent entrustment, which lawyers for the families cite. They argue the gun maker that manufactured the Bushmaster AR-15 rifle "designed [it] to kill" and "designed [it] for mass murder," then made it available to the general public.

The high-profile legal showdown comes more than four years after 20-year-old Adam Lanza fatally shot 26 people, as well as himself, at Sandy Hook Elementary on December 14, 2012, in Newtown, Connecticut. Most of the victims were children. Lanza obtained the rifle from the home he shared with his mother, Nancy, whom he killed before the rampage.

A survivor and nine families affected by the massacre brought the lawsuit against three companies: Remington Arms Co., the manufacturer of the AR-15; Camfour Inc., a distributor of firearms; and Riverview Gun Sales, the now-defunct dealer in East Windsor, Connecticut, that sold the weapon to Nancy Lanza in 2010.

"We are saying that it's their job, their responsibility to decide which weapons to sell to which people," Josh Koskoff, the lead lawyer representing the families in court, said in February.

In her decision on Thursday, Connecticut State Judge Barbara Bellis said the broad immunity granted by the 2005 law to the gun industry doesn't mean the case can't be heard in court.

Whether or not gun companies should be held liable after mass shootings has been a controversial issue in the Democratic presidential race. Hillary Clinton has often highlighted the gun-voting record of her opponent, Bernie Sanders. As a congressman, Sanders voted for the 2005 law, while Clinton, a senator from New York at the time, opposed it. Sanders has touted his rural ties to Vermont and his record of protecting mom-and-pop gun shops from legal responsibility. He also points out his D-minus rating from the National Rifle Association, which he says shows he isn't a friend of the gun lobby.

The Vermont senator sparked more controversy on the issue during a recent interview with the New York Daily News. 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.

"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."

[Related: Why Bernie Sanders's Gun Record Could Hurt Him in New York]

At the most recent Democratic debate Thursday night—held just hours after Bellis's ruling—Sanders was asked whether he owes the Sandy Hook victims an apology because of his remarks.

"No, I don't think I owe them an apology," he said. "They have the right to sue, and I support them and anyone else who wants the right to sue."

Sanders's comments weren't much different than those he made previously on the campaign trail and at other debates. But they caused a stir as the presidential race converged on New York for its April 19 primary. Connecticut residents will vote on April 26. Both states have some of the country's strictest gun laws and outspoken gun-control activists.

Earlier this year, Sanders vowed to co-sponsor a standing measure introduced by congressional Democrats and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence that seeks to nullify the 2005 law. Sanders's promise seemed to be an effort to undo the damage caused by his decade-old vote and to mend his seemingly broken relationship with gun-control advocates.

At Thursday's debate, Clinton argued the 2005 law is a "unique gift" given only to the gun industry; other businesses, such as car manufacturers, risk being held liable for making dangerous products or not providing adequate instructions for an item.

The Sandy Hook families are hoping to avoid a similar fate to that of Lonnie and Sandy Phillips, whose daughter, Jessica Ghawi, was killed in the July 2012 movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado. In 2014, the Phillips sued the online businesses that supplied the gunman with ammunition, body armor, tear gas and other related equipment used in the assault. They alleged the online sellers negligently supplied the shooter with the arsenal he used to kill 12 victims and injure dozens more. But the judge later dismissed their lawsuit because of the gun industry's protections under the 2005 act, as well as a Colorado immunity law. The judge also ordered the Phillips to pay $203,000 in legal fees for the defendants.

The two sides in the Sandy Hook case will meet next on Tuesday afternoon for a status hearing.

Nicole Hockley, whose son Dylan was 6 when he was killed at Sandy Hook, has said the ultimate goal of the lawsuit is to prevent others from going through what the families have endured in the wake of the tragedy.

"There were a lot of guns that the shooter could've chosen from his arsenal and his mother's arsenal to attack the people at Sandy Hook School," she said. "He chose the AR-15 because he was aware of how many shots it could get out, how lethal it was the way it was designed—that it would serve his objective of killing as many people as possible in the shortest time possible."