Sandy Hook decision focuses attention on gun liability law

Washington – A Connecticut state judge’s decision Thursday allowing a lawsuit to go forward against the maker of the Bushmaster rifle used in the Sandy Hook killings focused attention on a law that Connecticut lawmakers – and now Hillary Clinton – hope to repeal.

Remington Arms, maker of the Bushmaster rifle used to kill 20 first-graders and six staff members at Sandy Hook, is relying in its defense of the suit on a law Congress passed in 2005. Known as the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, or PLCAA, it protects gun manufacturers and dealers from liability when crimes are committed with their products.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., is hoping Congress repeals the law so it can’t be decisive in the lawsuit, though there is virtually no chance of a repeal in the present Congress.

The families of some of the children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School won a victory Thursday when Connecticut state Judge Barbara Bellis rejected the gun companies’ motion to dismiss the case citing PLCAA. She said the immunity granted the gun makers and dealers does not strip her court of jurisdiction to hear the case.

“It’s a very positive step, possibly historic,” Blumenthal said. “I think we should be very glad and grateful that the Sandy Hook families have demonstrated this courage and strength.”

In their lawsuit, the Sandy Hook families argue the Bushmaster rifle should not have been sold to the general public because it is a military-style assault weapon unsuited for civilian use. They say the gun’s maker, and seller, should have known about the high risk posed by the weapon and the ability for a shooter to use it to inflict maximum casualties.

Blumenthal and Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., introduced a bill in January that would repeal PLCAA. There is a similar bill in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“If Congress is persuaded that the legal shield is unconscionable, then there is enough time to repeal it,” Blumenthal said.

Blumenthal said he “could not say” if the Sandy Hook parents could win the suit “with PLCAA still on the books.” Though the PLCAA repeal bills are not expected to move in this Congress, gun industry liability has become an issue in the Democratic race for the White House.

On Thursday, Hillary Clinton said that as president she would “lead the charge to repeal this law.”

“Today’s ruling in Connecticut is an important step forward for these families, who are bravely fighting to hold irresponsible gun makers accountable for their actions. They deserve their day in court. Period,” Clinton said in a campaign statement. “Unfortunately, PLCAA – the sweeping immunity law that protects gun manufacturers and dealers – still remains a major obstacle for these families and others seeking to hold these gun companies accountable.”

Clinton has also bashed Democratic rival Bernie Sanders for telling the New York Daily News editorial board earlier this month that he does not support the Sandy Hook lawsuit. Sanders said he did not think a dealer should face a lawsuit for selling a gun legally to a customer who then misuses the weapon in a crime.

Sanders voted for PLCAA when he was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2005. But he is also one of about a dozen co-sponsors of the PLCAA repeal introduced by Blumenthal and Murphy.

The Sanders campaign did not have an immediate response to the court decision or Clinton’s comments.

Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, praised the court’s decision.

“We’ve passed the toughest gun laws in the nation for a reason,” he said. “These families deserve this — the ruling is the right one. The gun industry should not have protections that no other industry in America sees. This is a victory for the families and a victory for those who stand for commonsense gun laws.”

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