Toymakers whose toys injure kids can be sued. Carmakers that put dangerous cars on the highways and kill people can be sued. The U.S. cigarette industry is paying more than $200 billion for the toll of its deadly products. Yet the manufacturers of guns that kill almost 40,000 Americans yearly are protected from liability by federal law.
Relatives of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre may have found a way around that injustice, suing in state court over the way the guns are marketed. The Connecticut Supreme Court has ruled their lawsuit can go forward.
If it survives a U.S. Supreme Court challenge, it could provide the ammunition America needs to finally make these merchants of death legally responsible for the blood they've helped shed.
The 2012 massacre at the Newtown, Conn., school left 20 first-graders and six adults dead, along with the 20-year-old shooter. The shooter's legally purchased arsenal included a Bushmaster AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, manufactured by a subsidiary of gun maker Remington.
Had a bus crash or a building collapse taken all those young lives, a flurry of litigation would have followed. But a 2005 federal law, passed by a Republican Congress and signed by a Republican president at the behest of the National Rifle Association, makes gun manufacturers virtually untouchable for the carnage their products inflict.
So the Sandy Hook parents have taken a cue from tobacco litigation of the late 1990s. Cigarette makers ultimately were made to pay not just because their products kill but because of the way the companies advertised them, such as lying about health dangers and targeting very young customers.
The suit against Remington alleges the manufacturer didn't merely provide the weapon used in the slaughter; it also marketed that weapon in a way that promoted its violent, militaristic use, appealing to those who "carry out offensive, military style combat missions against their perceived enemies."
The Connecticut court held that the suit can go forward because, under state law, it's illegal to encourage criminal behavior in advertisements. That legal strategy has made the suit the first of its kind to reach the discovery stage, which could yield a treasure trove of documentation for the allegations.
Remington argues it is protected under the federal immunity law and has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case. The court's conservative lean doesn't bode well for the plaintiffs, but the justices could well decide to let this case go forward based on the Big Tobacco precedent. Even declining to review it would have that effect.
Hopefully, the case will be allowed to proceed. If the NRA and the gun industry it serves truly believe that guns aren't at the core of America's gun crisis, let them make that case to a jury.
REPRINTED FROM THE ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH