Suing the gunmaker: Sandy Hook families perform a valuable public service

    In this Jan. 28

    In this Jan. 28

    You probably know that Sandy Hook families are suing the manufacturer of the war weapon that decimated 20 little kids and six grownups in less than five minutes at that Connecticut elementary school.

    What you may not know — because the lawsuit has served mostly as political fodder in the Hillary-Bernie contest; it was mentioned in last Thursday’s debate — is that this case has the potential to lay bare the hideous marketing strategies of Big Gun, much the way a previous generation of lawsuits exposed Big Tobacco.

    It won’t be easy for the families to win damages from Remington, makers of the Bushmaster AR-15, if only because Congress and President Bush gave the gun industry blanket protection from lawsuits back in 2005. In the House, 79 percent of the pro-immunity votes were cast by Republicans; they got help from a few helpful folks across the aisle … like Bernie Sanders. Way to go, Bernie. The “revolution” leader is still squirming about that one.

    Nevertheless, the craven NRA law has a teensy weensy loophole that the families are seeking to exploit. That loophole is one big reason why the lawsuit is very much alive. Indeed, last week, a Connecticut judge rejected Big Gun’s bid to dismiss the case. And rest assured, Big Gun wants this case gone, because it would prefer not to share — with plaintiffs’ attorneys, as required in the discovery phase — the internal memos that reveal how it markets state-of-the-art military bang-bang for civilian use.

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    You can read the Soto v. Bushmaster complaint for yourself, but here’s the gist: Even under the immunity law that Bernie voted for, gunmakers and marketers can be sued for “negligent entrustment,” the legal term for giving a product to someone whom you know (or should know) is likely to do harm with it. The Sandy Hook families contend that it’s negligent entrustment to goad civilians into buying mass-carnage weapons that are geared not for civilian life, but for the military battlefield.

    Ads for the Bushmaster, featured in civilian catalogues, make this plain as day: “The uncompromising choice when you demand a rifle as mission-adaptable as you are … Military-proven performance … The ultimate combat weapons system … Forces of opposition, bow down. You are single-handedly outnumbered.”

    Yep, those little kids, those “forces of opposition,” were indeed “single-handedly outnumbered.” But since that image is still too sickening to contemplate, let’s stick with the legalisms.

    Because this case is being litigated in the Connecticut courts, the families are also alleging violations of the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act, which bars deceptive and unfair practices in the conduct of trade or commerce. I looked up the law. A commercial practice is deemed unfair if it is “immoral, unethical, oppressive, or unscrupulous.” I guess I’m not (yet) jaded by our blood-soaked gun culture, because it appears to me that selling “mission adaptable” military hardware to civilians meets the definition of immoral and unethical.

    For these reasons, the Connecticut judge ruled that the families’ beef at least deserves to be aired in court. The federal immunity law “does not prevent lawyers for the families of Sandy Hook victims from arguing that the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle is a military weapon and should not have been sold to civilians.”

    Lawsuits against the gun industry have generally failed — last year, parents of a victim in the Aurora, Colorado mass shooting were thwarted when a judge tossed their case, citing the immunity law — and I’d be shocked if the Sandy Hook parents prevail in the end. But they’d perform a valuable public sevice if they can sustain their case long enough to compel the industry to open its books and share the sales and advertising strategies that have helped make America the carnage capital of the “civilized” western world.

    No wonder Big Gun wanted the immunity law in the first place. It knew a case like this would come along.

    By the way, here’s how Bernie Sanders squirms: He signaled earlier this year that he’d consider dumping the immunity law — while still insisting that his ’05 vote was “not a mistake.” But two weeks ago, when The New York Daily News asked him whether Sandy Hook families should have the right to sue gunmakers for damages, he replied: “No, they don’t.” Oops, time for a flip-flop. Yesterday, when CNN asked him the same question, he replied: “Of course they have a right to sue, anyone has a right to sue.”

    Whatever. If the Sandy Hook families can pry open those gun industry books, nobody will care what Sanders says.

    Meanwhile, on the Republican delegate front, Ted Cruz spent this weekend picking Donald Trump’s pocket. Yet again. This time in Wyoming, Georgia, South Carolina, Kansas, and Florida. Trump had better clinch victory on the first ballot because if he doesn’t, Cruz’s shadow army will likely triumph on the second.

    Having failed to master the delegate rules that are the same for all candidates, Der Leader says he’s the victim of “a crooked deal.” Which brings to mind the spin that another demagogic mogul ginned up in preparation for his own defeat.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

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