Gun-Maker Remington Settles with Sandy Hook Families Over Alleged Liability for Misuse of Weapon They Made
A settlement means no official legal precedent is set, but holding gun sellers responsible for crimes of gun users could harm Americans' ability to enjoy their Second Amendment rights.
In December 2012, Adam Lanza used guns to murder 26 people, 20 of them children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Today, after eight years of legal wrangling, Remington, the gun company that manufactured one of the weapons he used, settled a lawsuit by paying $73 million to a group of families of victims and one survivor that claimed the gun company bore legal responsibility for Lanza's criminal misuse of the weapon it made.
The plaintiffs insisted that Remington violated Connecticut's Unfair Trade Practices Act (CUTPA) by stressing its rifles' "militaristic and assaultive qualities" in its marketing. Thus the company should legally bear responsibility for Lanza (unlike nearly every other gun purchaser) using the weapon to kill other people. Various other arguments the plaintiffs tried to use to hold Remington responsible for Lanza's actions were rejected by Connecticut's Supreme Court in 2019, but the one based on CUTPA remained.
This reliance on the Connecticut law was important, as Jacob Sullum reported at Reason in November 2019 when the U.S. Supreme Court declined an appeal from Remington to stop the suit, since that law in theory allowed them to:
get around the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), a 2005 federal law that generally protects gun manufacturers and distributors from liability for criminal uses of their products. The CUTPA claim is based on one of the exceptions made by the PLCAA, which allows lawsuits alleging that "a manufacturer or seller of a qualified product knowingly violated a State or Federal statute applicable to the sale or marketing of the product, and the violation was a proximate cause of the harm for which relief is sought."…
The National Shooting Sports Foundation, an industry group that asked the U.S. Supreme Court to take up this case, notes that the plaintiffs have not offered any evidence that Lanza or his mother, who bought the rifle he used, was "influenced in any way by any advertisement," let alone that advertising precipitated the mass shooting or made it deadlier. As the Connecticut Supreme Court itself observed while allowing the lawsuit to proceed, "proving such a causal link at trial may prove to be a Herculean task."
Remington's choice to settle today eliminated the need for rigorous proof in court of that causal link.
Burdening an entity with legal liability for the criminal actions of its customers is an unusual legal principle. It offends the standard sense of justice, seeing as Remington did not do anything to harm those families specifically. It merely sold a product that someone else used to do harm, in the same way that any number of common items sold innocently in America could be used to intentionally or accidentally harm others. (Automobiles, for example, are these days involved in over 40,000 deaths each year, whereas rifles are typically involved in just hundreds.)
Despite Remington agreeing to settle, there are sound legal reasons to not hold an entity—that did not make any choice that directly caused harm to others—responsible for the harmful actions its customers may commit. The Second Amendment guarantees a legal right to keep and bear arms, at least for self-defense in the home. This right would be hobbled if gun manufacturers regularly faced liability for the guns they sold being used to harm others. (And guns' ability to harm others, like it or not, is why they are valuable for self-defense and, thus, why the government is prohibited from banning them).
The weapons Remington manufactures and sells are not inherently dangerous absent criminal or negligent actions by the people that buy them. This is made obvious by the fact that the overwhelming majority of the nearly 400 million privately owned firearms in the U.S. never harm anyone at all. Guns can be, and almost always are, used in responsible and harmless ways. Nothing inherent in Remington's making and marketing of them directly harms anyone.
New York state's S.B. 7196, made law last year, also makes it easier in civil litigation to hold gun suppliers responsible for the actions of gun users. To be free of liability, gun-makers must "utilize reasonable controls and procedures" to ensure that the weapons they sell are not used unlawfully, even though most gun crimes are committed by people who did not obtain their guns legally.
Despite Remington's choice to settle the Sandy Hook case, there is little manufacturers can do to prevent their guns from being misused by criminals besides not making them at all, which is exactly what the activists cheering on this settlement want.
Remington filed for bankruptcy protection in 2020 and made a rejected $33 million settlement offer last July. Remington's insurers will be on the hook for today's payoff.