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In Bridgeport, Judge Hears Arguments About Lawsuit Against AR-15 Maker

Superior Court Judge Barbara Bellis.
Superior Court Judge Barbara Bellis.

A state judge in Bridgeport, Connecticut heard arguments on Monday about whether a lawsuit against a gun manufacturer has legal merit to move forward.

The gun maker is Remington Arms, which manufactured the Bushmaster AR-15 used by Adam Lanza in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012. In the span of a few minutes, Lanza killed 20 children and six educators.

The case was brought by families of nine victims and a teacher who survived the massacre. The lawsuit seeks damages and an injunction against selling the AR-15 rifle.

The plaintiffs have argued that the rifle -- a modified version of a gun used by the military in Vietnam -- should never have been marketed and sold to civilians.  

Mathew Soto stood outside the courthouse on Monday morning. His sister, Victoria Soto, was a teacher killed in the Sandy Hook shooting.

"As I heard the news from Orlando, so many emotions went through me," he said. "From horror to sadness, grief, and disgust. As I watched the news that day, I went back to that horrible day in December. No one should be put in that position. No other family should have to sit for six hours and wait to hear if their loved one is alive or dead."

Mathew Soto outside the Bridgeport, Connecticut courthouse on Monday morning. His sister, Victoria Soto, was killed in the Sandy Hook shooting. Standing near Soto is attorney Josh Koskoff.
Credit Lori Mack / WNPR
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Mathew Soto outside the Bridgeport, Connecticut courthouse on Monday morning. His sister, Victoria Soto, was killed in the Sandy Hook shooting. Standing near Soto is attorney Josh Koskoff.

Mark Barden, whose seven-year-old son Daniel was killed at Sandy Hook, is also one of the plaintiffs. “How does a kid around the corner get his hands on a weapon that was designed for killing large amounts of people in a short amount of time on the battlefield?” he asked.

A similar weapon was used by shooter Omar Mateen in Orlando, Florida a week ago, in a massacre that left 49 people dead.

Remington has argued that the assault rifle used in the Newtown shooting was lawfully bought and sold. It said a federal law protects the manufacturer from acts committed with its products – the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, passed in 2005.

John Thomas, a professor at Quinnipiac University, said even car manufacturers don’t see that kind of immunity. But there is an exception to the immunity law for gun manufacturers, he said – it’s called negligent entrustment, or selling a gun to a suspicious buyer who plans to use it to commit a crime.

“The plaintiffs in the Sandy Hook case have a creative spin on it,” Thomas said. “They say it’s actually negligent to sell to civilians any weapon like an AR-15, an assault rifle, because it’s designed not for target shooting or carrying in your purse to protect yourself in a dark parking lot, but it’s designed for military use.”

Attorney Katherine Whitney said Remington will challenge that assertion, based on the argument that the company isn’t a seller of guns.

Attorney James Vogts represented Remington in court on Monday.

“A principal feature of a cause of action for negligent entrustment is the knowledge of the entruster with respect to the dangerous propensities and incompetency of the entrustee,” he said. “If a manufacturer is not there to assess the incompetency or competency of the entrustee, how can it ever be shown that the manufacturer knew or reasonably should have known of that person’s incompetence? That’s what negligent entrustment law is in the state of Connecticut. That’s what it is throughout this country.” 

A decision about whether the case can move forward could take months.

Diane Orson, Lori Mack, and Patrick Skahill contributed to this report.

Copyright 2016 Connecticut Public