HARTFORD, CT — The marketing campaign behind the AR-15 style Bushmaster firearm started targeting the Sandy Hook Elementary School gunman when he was 14 years old, according to an attorney for some of his victims.
“Remington may never have known Adam Lanza, but they have been courting him for years,” Josh Koskoff, the attorney for the plaintiffs told the Connecticut Supreme Court on Tuesday during his opening remarks. “And the courtship between Remington and Adam Lanza is at the heart of this case.”
Koskoff represents nine victims who were killed and a teacher who survived the Dec. 14, 2012, massacre.
Koskoff argued that his clients — victims of one of the deadliest school shootings in history — should be able to continue their discovery in the case to prove the manufacturers and sellers of the firearm were negligent.
Koskoff said early discovery, all of which is sealed, should allow for the inference that the gun manufacturers targeted young men like Lanza, through video games like “Call of Duty.”
Police reports described Lanza as an avid video game player and a “shut in.”
By 2010 — the year Lanza’s mother, Nancy, bought him the gun — the manufacturers knew that their marketing was working, Koskoff said. The gun was a gift that Lanza received for his 18th birthday — two years before he carried out the shooting at the school and then took his own life.
“Adam Lanza heard the message and was driven specifically to the Bushmaster,” Koskoff said.
He said Lanza was dressed in tactical gear when he showed up at the school that day and fired 154 rounds in less than five minutes.
James Vogts, an attorney for the gun manufacturer Remington, said no advertisement is responsible for a wrongful death.
“Forces of opposition bow down. You are single handedly outnumbered,” one advertising campaign reads.
Justice Andrew McDonald asked why Remington’s advertising message about the “forces of opposition” is necessary. Vogts said the weapon is used in home defense.
“I would want to choose a firearm that would force any opposition to bow down,” Vogts said.
However, he said that specific advertising copy doesn’t apply to the gun used by Lanza in the 2012 shooting that took the lives of 20 first graders and six educators.
Vogts said the tobacco industry wasn’t held responsible for its advertising. He said those lawsuits were based on health issues.
“Under the law — federal law and Connecticut law — the manufacturers and sellers are not responsible for the crimes and the harm they cause,” Vogts said.
He argued that under the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA) passed by Congress in 2005, his client is exempt from the negligent entrustment the plaintiffs claim.
“You cannot make a negligent entrustment case against a non-seller,” Vogts said. “The federal scheme is only applicable to sellers.”
He said any manufacturer is insulated from a negligent entrustment claim.
Camfour, another named defendant, also argued that it’s exempt from a negligent entrustment claim.
Koskoff doesn’t believe that’s true. He said the federal law exempts negligent entrustment and state laws related to marketing practices.
Justice Richard Palmer asked whether Koskoff was asking the court to broaden its definition of negligent entrustment.
Koskoff said it’s something the court should have done years ago.
Asked a similar question about whether the law should be adapted to more modern times, Vogts said that’s not what the plaintiffs are arguing.
“We’re hearing that the law of negligent entrustment needs to be ignored,” Vogts said.
The Supreme Court will, according to legal experts, have to decide whether Remington can be held liable for “negligent entrustment” or whether they violated Connecticut’s Unfair Trade Practices Act.
A lower court dismissed the case in 2016, siding with Remington that the lawsuit falls under the immunity provided by the federal PLCAA.
The audience for Tuesday’s hearing was from around the country. There were 16 amicus briefs filed, including briefs by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which is also headquartered in Newtown, and the National Rifle Association, along with a number of organizations like the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and the Brady Center To Prevent Gun Violence.
Some of the plaintiff families sat in the front row Tuesday to listen to an hour-and-a-half of arguments.
Ian Hockley, whose son, Dylan, was among the murder victims, said that Remington “could not care less what happens to their guns once the cash is in the bank, showing an utter disregard for the lives this weapon takes and the families it destroys.”
Hockley, whose son was shot at least five times at point blank range, said the manufacturer is actively marketing its guns to people who are unstable.
He added that the plaintiffs have “infinite patience” to see that justice is done.
But it’s an uphill battle.
In dismissing the lawsuit, Superior Court Judge Barbara Bellis wrote, “Although PLCAA provides a narrow exception under which plaintiffs may maintain an action for negligent entrustment of a firearm, the allegations in the present case do not fit within the common-law tort of negligent entrustment under well-established Connecticut law, nor do they come within PLCAA’s definition of negligent entrustment.”
She added that “a plaintiff under CUPTA must allege some kind of consumer, competitor or other commercial relationship with a defendant, and the plaintiffs here have alleged no such relationship.”