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Hold gunmakers accountable

Congress should repeal a 2005 law that grants the industry unique immunity

Det. Barbara J. Mattson, of the Connecticut State

Det. Barbara J. Mattson, of the Connecticut State Police, holds a Bushmaster AR-15 rifle, the same make and model used by Adam Lanza in the 2012 Sandy Hook School shooting, during a hearing on Jan. 28, 2013, at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford, Conn.  Photo Credit: AP/Jessica Hill

The sturdy anti-lawsuit umbrella that Congress gave the gun-manufacturing industry is turning out to be a tad leaky. That’s encouraging, but it’s not enough. Congress needs to admit this umbrella was a bad idea and throw it away.

The umbrella is the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act of 2005, which gave the industry uniquely broad immunity from lawsuits. It achieved notoriety in 2016, when a Connecticut judge cited the law in dismissing a suit brought by the families of some victims in the slaughter at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

In December 2012, Adam Lanza killed his mother, using her own Bushmaster rifle — a civilian version of the weapon of war that U.S. troops used in Afghanistan and Iraq — and then killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook. The families sued Remington Outdoor, the manufacturer, and a wholesaler and retailer. A judge initially let the case move ahead, then decided that the 2005 law left her no choice but to dismiss it. The families appealed.

On March 14, the Connecticut Supreme Court agreed in part with the lower court, dismissing many of the claims, but allowed the suit to continue, using one of the six loopholes built into the law: It allows suits alleging violations of state or federal laws on marketing, when a violation leads to the trauma that a lawsuit seeks to redress.

In the majority of mass killings, the shooter has been a young man, and the families’ lawyers claim that Remington’s marketing was aimed at young men. One Remington ad, branding its weapon of war as a seal of manhood, is typical. It shows a Bushmaster with this appeal: “Consider your man card reissued.”

At the time of the slaughter, Lanza was 20, right in the heart of Remington’s target demographic. He didn’t have to buy a Bushmaster. His mother owned one. But Joshua Koskoff, the lawyer representing the Newtown families during oral arguments on the appeal, connected manufacturer and killer this way: “Remington may never have known Adam Lanza, but they had been courting him for years.”

The Newtown suit could expose internal Remington documents about that marketing strategy. It also might encourage suits by other victims, such as the families of students killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in February 2018. But any lawsuits must navigate the narrow window of exceptions in the 2005 law. It would make much more sense for Congress to repeal it and allow lawsuits to persuade manufacturers to keep these weapons of war out of the hands of civilians.

Repeal legislation has been introduced in Congress, but it could use a boost. That’s where Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) could help. Paul Guttenberg of Commack, whose niece, Jaime Guttenberg, died in the Parkland killings, likes King’s current efforts on background checks. “He’s done some good things,” Guttenberg said. “I still want to see more from him.”

On Oct. 20, 2005, King didn’t cast his vote with the Democratic members of the Long Island delegation when he voted yea on the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act. All of his Democratic colleagues from Long Island voted nay. In the earlier Senate vote, Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton both voted nay.

King likes to say he gets low ratings from the National Rifle Association. But the gun industry and its servant, the NRA, could not have asked for a greater act of support than the vote on the 2005 law. Now it’s time for King to acknowledge he was wrong to give that golden gift, and join Democratic members of Congress to take it back.

Bob Keeler is a former member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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