On January 26, 2015, survivors of victims killed by a deranged man at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut sued the maker and distributor of the firearm he used in his crimes.
This afternoon, a judge issued a ruling in the case, Soto v. Bushmaster, that held the defendants were entitled to immunity from the suit.
The defendants in the case originally asked the court to dismiss the complaint under the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), which was enacted in 2005 to prohibit frivolous suits against firearm makers for criminal acts committed with their products by unaffiliated third parties.
In April, the court in the Soto case issued a highly technical ruling that found the defendants had filed the wrong type of motion to invoke the protections of the PLCAA. The court at that time expressed no opinion on the merits of either the complaint or the defenses.
The defendants renewed their claim of immunity under the PLCAA, this time by filing “motions to strike” the plaintiffs’ claims.
In a lengthy decision on the merits, Connecticut Judge Barbara Bellis today granted those motions in their entirety.
Judge Bellis stated in her order:
Congress, through the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act … has broadly prohibited lawsuits “against manufacturers, distributors, dealers, and importers of firearms … for the harm solely caused by the criminal or unlawful use of firearm products … by others when the produced functioned as designed and intended.” … The present case seeks damages for harms … that were caused solely by the criminal misuse of a weapon by [the perpetrator of the Newtown slayings]. Accordingly, this action falls squarely within the broad immunity provided by the PLCAA.
The plaintiffs in the case tried to avoid the obvious problems the PLCAA presented for their claims by citing one of the law’s exceptions for “negligent entrustment.” This requires a plaintiff to show that the seller of the product knew, or reasonably should have known, that selling the product to a particular recipient created an unreasonable risk of harm.
In the Newtown case, none of the defendants sold or supplied a firearm directly to the ultimate perpetrator. Instead, the firearm was sold to his mother, who passed the legally required background check. The perpetrator, however, subsequently killed her and stole the firearm he then used in his crimes.
Nevertheless, the plaintiffs claimed the defendants were negligent for entrusting any member of the general public with the Bushmaster XM-15E2S (an AR-15 variant) used in the crime. Despite the fact the firearm was perfectly legal to sell and own under federal and Connecticut law at the time and that AR-15s are America’s most popular and fastest-selling rifles, the plaintiffs insisted that “civilians are unfit to operate AR-15s.”
Had this claim succeeded, it would have not only been the first time a court essentially banned an otherwise legal class of firearms, it would have essentially gutted the protections of the PLCAA by making courts, rather than legislatures, the ultimate arbiters of what firearms are legal to sell.
Fortunately, Judge Bellis understood this was exactly the sort of claim for which the PLCAA was enacted. It would be impossible for businesses to manufacture and sell firearms to the public if courts could decide, after that fact, that even legal gun were too dangerous for any member of the public to own.
Judge Bellis also rejected other claims under a PLCAA exception that allows for a lawsuit when a manufacturer or seller knowingly violated a state or federal statute applicable to the sale or marketing of the product, and that violation led to the harms claimed in the suit. For these claims, the plaintiffs cited the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act, but the court held they had not alleged the sorts of commercial relationships with the defendants necessary to establish a right of action under that law.
The court’s decision is a reminder of the critical importance of the PLCAA to preserving the Second Amendment in America. It should come as no surprise, then, that Hillary Clinton has promised to pursue repeal of the PLCAA if elected to the presidency.
It should also come as no surprise that the plaintiffs have already expressed their intention to appeal today’s ruling. We will report on further developments as they occur.