Judge Ignores Federal Law and Allows Sandy Hook Gun Case to Proceed

By Hans von Spakovsky Published on April 19, 2016

There is no doubt that what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 12, 2012, was a horrible event and a terrible tragedy for the parents of the children murdered by Adam Lanza, a mentally disturbed young man. But the decision on April 14 by Connecticut Superior Court Judge Barbara N. Bellis refusing to dismiss the lawsuit filed against gun manufacturers by the parents is plainly wrong as a matter of law.

It is important to remember that the rifle used by Adam Lanza, a semi-automatic AR-15, had been legally bought by his mother, Nancy Lanza. Lanza killed her while she was sleeping before he headed to the elementary school and engaged in his killing spree. In fact, some of the families blamed Nancy Lanza for what happened, saying that she knew about her son’s mental problems and “ignored all the signs” of his “increasing instability.”

The parents subsequently filed a wrongful death lawsuit in state court against Bushmaster Firearms, Remington Arms, and a host of other firearms manufacturers. The families claim that the manufacturers acted “unethically, oppressively, immorally, and unscrupulously” in marketing the “assaultive qualities and military use of AR-15s to civilian purchasers.”

These are not phrases for a legal claim; they are the terms one would use for a press release.

The lawsuit makes claims that would come as a great surprise to the many Americans who own these rifles for self-defense, hunting, and target shooting. According to the plaintiffs in this case, these firearms pose such an “unreasonable risk” that ordinary Americans exercising their Second Amendment rights should not be allowed to own them because most citizens are not affiliated with “specialized, highly-regulated institutions like the armed forces and law enforcement.”

Literally millions of these rifles are owned and used by law-abiding citizens every day all across the country without incident, and the number of times this specific weapon has been used in a mass killing is almost negligible. Yet despite those uncontroverted facts, the manufacturers of this legal product should have known, according to the plaintiffs, that these weapons “posed an unreasonable and egregious risk of physical injury to others,” particularly a “mass casualty event.”

Of course, the main problem faced by the plaintiffs is that this lawsuit is absolutely barred by the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act of 2005 (PLCA). The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush to stop these types of emotionally-charged lawsuits against gun manufacturers. Codified at 15 U.S.C. §7901-7903, the Congressional “Findings” specifically state that businesses that manufacture, market, distribute, import or sell firearms should not “be liable for the harm caused by those who criminally or unlawfully misuse” such weapons. Such civil liability lawsuits “may not be brought in any Federal or State court.”

The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act provides only limited exceptions to this prohibition. One exception is for lawsuits claiming a normal product liability issue, such as the harm caused by a weapon that contained a design or manufacturing defect that caused it to malfunction. Or if the manufacturer deliberately sold the gun to someone who is prohibited from owning a guns — like a felon. Or if the manufacturer encouraged a gun owner to misuse the weapon in a way that led to the harm.

None of these exceptions applies in this case. So the defendants filed a motion to have the case dismissed, relying on the federal statute that clearly and unambiguously prohibits this lawsuit from even being filed in any court anywhere in the country. Yet in an 18-page opinion, Judge Bellis engages in what Justice Antonin Scalia would have called an embarrassing “bit of interpretive jiggery-pokery” in order to get out of doing what the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act compels her to do — dismiss this lawsuit.

Bellis spends page after page arguing legal semantics over the motion to dismiss; whether it was the appropriate motion for raising a lack of subject matter jurisdiction; if it properly questioned “the legal sufficiency” of the plaintiffs’ claims; or whether the defendants should have filed a motion to strike as opposed to a motion to dismiss (no really).

This is the worst kind of legal gymnastics and pettifoggery intended to try to justify what Bellis does at the end of her opinions — refuse to grant the motion to dismiss (or strike or whatever). This despite the fact that federal law could not be more clear — such claims against gun manufacturers “may not be brought in any Federal or State court.” Period.

Bellis wrote an opinion clearly designed to get to the end that I am sure the local families — who are entitled to a great deal of sympathy — want, which is the ability to go after the deep pockets of gun makers who manufacture and sell a product owned by many Americans, and a product they have a constitutional right to own. By doing so, the judge is basically showing her contempt for the rule of law and for the U.S. Constitution, which makes it clear in Article VI that laws passed by Congress such as the PLCA are “the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State [including Judge Bellis] shall be bound thereby.”


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