Earlier this afternoon “Sandy Hook” briefly trended on Twitter as news spread that a Connecticut trial court had denied Bushmaster Firearms’s attempt to dismiss a lawsuit brought by family members of Sandy Hook victims. While the lawsuit itself represents an attempt to overturn the Second Amendment through the creative use of state tort law, the judge’s ruling was extraordinarily narrow, highly technical, and had nothing to do with the actual legal sufficiency of the plaintiffs’ claims.
In essence (legalese warning), the judge decided that the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA) did not deprive the court of “subject matter jurisdiction” to hear the plaintiffs’ claims. A jurisdictional challenge typically doesn’t reach the actual merits of the case, and this challenge was no exception. Indeed, as the trial court explained, the defendants themselves “reaffirmed that at this juncture, they are solely raising the issue of the court’s jurisdiction, not challenging the legal sufficiency of the complaint.”
The court’s ruling — that it has jurisdiction — may be erroneous but it is hardly the “major blow” the likes of Newsweek celebrate. Surprisingly enough, the New York Daily News gets the ruling mostly right, noting that the court’s “narrow ruling on jurisdiction does not prevent the defendants . . . from invoking PLCAA to beat the lawsuit further down the road.”
The case still bears watching, however. The plaintiffs are advancing novel legal theories to try to hold arms manufacturers liable for the misuse of a perfectly legal, well-functioning product. The suit is the equivalent of suing Toyota if an evil man intentionally drove his Tundra into a crowd.
In this case, the plaintiffs are claiming that the mere sale of a weapon as lethal as an AR-15 constitutes “negligent entrustment.” The PLCAA allows for suits based on “negligent entrustment” when a seller sells a gun to an individual the seller knew or should have known should not have purchased the weapon. But the plaintiffs’ theory is extraordinarily broad. They claim that the sale of “assault rifles” (an inaccurate term) “posed an unreasonable and egregious risk to others” and that there is an “unreasonably high risk” that they’ll be used in a “mass shooting to inflict maximum casualties before law enforcement was able to intervene.” In essence, the complaint is that it is “negligent entrustment” for a gun manufacturer to put an allegedly “military” weapon into civilian hands.
This theory is absurd, contradicts the history and purpose of the Second Amendment, and it would render the amendment a dead letter for all but the most primitive weapons. Semiautomatic pistols are “military weapons” as well and have been used to carry out multiple mass shootings, including the worst of all — the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007. Are they next? In addition, if assault rifles are so dangerous to the public, why do individuals wielding assault rifles kill fewer people in any given year than hammers, knives, or even fists?
It is highly likely that the trial court’s ruling provided the plaintiffs with a temporary reprieve only. There is no truly credible legal theory that supports their case, and it should be dismissed as soon as the court considers the merits. But as we’ve learned in many other contexts, when an ideological judge wants to reach a particular outcome, he or she will find a way to “reason” to the desired result. This case bears watching until final victory is secured.