Last Thursday, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that the firearm manufacturer Remington can be sued over its marketing practices. The shooter in the Sandy Hook school massacre used one if its rifles to kill 20 children and six adults in 2012.
Adam Winkler, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a specialist in American constitutional law and the Supreme Court, says federal law normally protects gun manufacturers from civil lawsuits if their guns are used by someone to commit a crime. But he says one exceptions is if a company uses deceptive marketing practices. Those are the grounds upon which the Connecticut court decided that Remington could potentially be held liable for the shooting.
“The plaintiffs are alleging that Remington deceptively marketed these military-style rifles, knowing that they would encourage violent and criminal behavior and that they would get into the wrong people’s hands – that their marketing encouraged people to think of themselves as using these weapons to kill human beings in an offensive manner,” Winkler says.
Winkler says the plaintiffs argue that Remington broke Connecticut law by marketing its weapons in a way that encouraged their use in criminal behavior. Even though the plaintiffs are now free to sue Remington, it doesn’t mean they’ll win the case. But Winkler says they still could “win” in the end because they’ll open up Remington’s internal documents to public scrutiny.
“One of the things they’re looking to do is get discovery – get access to the internal documents of Remington to show how they thought about their marketing and sales practices with regards to these firearms,” Winkler says.
While the ruling only applies to Connecticut, Winkler says it provides “a new road map” for gun laws in other states and for federal gun laws.
“It offers a new but plausible … interpretation of the federal law that restricts the liability of gun-makers,” Winkler says.
He says the Connecticut court’s ruling was a “broad” reading of the deceptive marketing exception to federal law – an interpretation that could spread to courts in other states. But this case may end up in the U.S. Supreme Court first if Remington appeals.
“The Supreme Court could overturn the Connecticut Supreme Court,” Winkler says.
In the meantime, Winkler says the ruling is an opportunity for gun rights advocates like the National Rifle Association to push for stronger Second Amendment protections. That could include trying to do away with the deceptive marketing exception in federal law altogether.
“I wouldn’t be even surprised to see that if this case moves forward, a push to amend the law in Congress to eliminate the exception,” Winkler says.
Written by Caroline Covington.