Guest Editorial: Sandy Hook lawsuit misfires
It seems hard-hearted to oppose the lawsuit brought by the families of the children and adults shot to death in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Anyone who hasn’t endured such a nightmare can’t imagine the survivors’ grief, and their struggle to prevent anyone else from having to go through such horror deserves respect.
But the lawsuit almost surely won’t succeed, nor should it. The suit tries to make a legal argument out of what should be settled politically, even if the politics of gun control make that agonizingly difficult. It seeks to criminalize the sale of a legal product — the military-style AR-15 assault rifle — that does what it was designed to do.
Suing gun makers and gun stores for selling a weapon used by a deranged young man to slaughter people is not unlike suing the maker and seller of a car that a demented driver slams into a crowd of people.
The Newtown lawsuit, filed in late 2014, has gotten attention lately because it might be blocked by a law Congress passed in 2005 to provide the gun industry broad immunity from legal challenges. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders voted for the bill and, in the run-up to Tuesday's New York primary, rival Hillary Clinton has charged thatSanders coddles gun makers.
The fact is, most lawsuits similar to the Sandy Hook action failed even before the law was passed. The Sandy Hook plaintiffs say the law actually helps them, because it contains an exemption for “negligent entrustment,” which in effect means that the makers and sellers of the AR-15 knew it was too lethal and too dangerous to be put in the hands of a disturbed young man such as Adam Lanza.
We’re sympathetic to that argument because we have long felt the risks of widespread private ownership of assault rifles outweigh the benefits to legitimate gun owners. We supported the assault-weapons ban Congress passed in 1994, regretted that it was allowed to lapse in 2004, and backed reinstatement after Sandy Hook. But it’s up to governments, not the courts, to outlaw such weapons.
Moreover, the law’s definition of “negligent entrustment” specifies that it applies to “the person to whom the product is supplied,” and in this case it was Lanza’s mother, not the troubled son, who bought and owned the weapon.
The plaintiffs also argue that the AR-15 and its 30-round magazine are uniquely lethal, noting that the Sandy Hook shooter killed 26 people in under five minutes. But semiautomatic weapons of all kinds can be remarkably efficient killing machines. At Virginia Tech in 2007, Seung Hui Cho shot 47 people in 10 to 12 minutes using two semiautomatic handguns with magazines that held no more than 15 bullets.
The immunity law doesn't block all lawsuits. Last year, a judge said the law didn’t bar a successful suit against a Milwaukee-area store that sold a gun to a straw purchaser; the real buyer used it to shoot two Milwaukee cops. And recently, the Missouri Supreme Court said the law could not stop a case against a pawn shop that sold a gun to a woman who used it to shoot her father — despite the mother begging the store two days earlier not to sell the weapon because her daughter was mentally ill.
Determined lawyers have been able to bring strong cases against bad actors in the gun industry, and the nation is safer for it. For the Sandy Hook families, though, recourse is best pursued at the ballot box, not in the courtroom.