Judge In Sandy Hook AR-15 Lawsuit Asks If Cigarette Cases Provide Legal Analogy

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BRIDGEPORT - Arguments continued Monday on whether a judge should dismiss a lawsuit by families of some victims of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre against the manufacturer of the AR-15 rifle used in the slayings.

During a heavily attended hearing, Superior Court Judge Barbara Bellis at one point brought up the history of cigarette manufacturing and sales, and asked the attorney for the Remington Arms Co., the maker of the AR-15, if -- while the dangers are different -- there isn't a legal analogy that can be made.

"Years ago people didn't know cigarettes weren't safe but now no one can argue that they are," Bellis said.

The lawsuit accuses Remington and other defendants of negligently selling a weapon to civilians that the plaintiffs claim is suitable only for the military and law enforcement.

Bellis questioned whether, regardless of fact it is legal to sell the AR-15, it is unreasonable to do so because "we now know they're weapon of choice for mass shootings?"

Remington's attorney James Vogts answered that the gun used to kill 20 first-graders and six adults in the Newtown school was purchased through a legal sale and that "it is not the court's job to ban things. That is a legislative issue."

The hearing drew an overflow crowd to Bellis' small courtroom with nearly all of the 10 families who have filed the lawsuit represented. The media presence was much larger than previous hearings in the case, with Monday's session coming just more than a week after the shooting in an Orlando nightclub where 49 people were killed by a man using a gun similar to an AR-15.

Before attending the hearing, some family members stood together outside the courthouse as Matthew Soto, brother of first-grade teacher Victoria Soto, addressed the media. Victoria Soto was killed during the Dec. 14, 2012 shooting.

"When I heard about Orlando, I felt sadness, grief, disgust. No one should ever be put on that position again," Matthew Soto said. "Our actions here are meant to bring about change."

He ended his statement saying "We are Newtown. We are Orlando."

Bellis did not issue a ruling Monday on Remington's motion to dismiss the case. She has 120 days and is expected to issue a written ruling.

Attorneys for Remington, Camfour Inc., the gun's distributor, and Riverview Gun Sales, the shop where the AR-15 was bought in 2010, made basically the same arguments as they did during a previous hearing and in court filings - the lawsuit should be thrown out because they are immune to lawsuits under the federal Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act or PLCAA.

Vogts closed his argument with a question for Bellis.

"If PLCAA doesn't prohibit this case against Remington that what kind of case would it prohibit,?" Vogts said. "PLCAA was enacted for this very type of case -- to prevent attorneys from coming up with these novel theories."

The lawsuit alleges that the Bushmaster AR-15, a semiautomatic rifle similar in appearance to fully automatic military rifles, was marketed in a militaristic fashion that appealed to those intent on inflicting mass casualties. The rifle was marketed "particularly (to) younger men who were military wannabees, plaintiffs' attorney Josh Koskoff said.

"How did a weapon used in Vietnam and streets of Fallujah end up on the floor of Vicky Soto's first grade classroom?" Koskoff said. "It did not get there by accident and the shooter did not use it by accident. Remington made the choice to trust the most notorious killing weapon the military has ever seen to civilians. If they didn't choose to sell the gun to civilians, we wouldn't have had a Sandy Hook."

Adam Lanza killed 26 people inside the Sandy Hook Elementary School. He fired 154 shots in less than five minutes before killing himself.

Attorneys for the gun companies pointed out that the weapon wasn't sold to Adam Lanza, but to his mother, Nancy Lanza, who had a legal gun permit. Adam Lanza killed his mother first as she slept in her bed at the home they shared before proceeding to the elementary school that morning.

"Clearly this is a legislative issue, not a legal one. Camfour didn't even sell this weapon," Christopher Renzulli said. "Camfour didn't entrust the weapon to someone who would use it illegally. Camfour didn't sell the firearm to Adam Lanza."

Renzulli argued if this lawsuit proceeds than all lawful sales of firearms by federally licensed companies would be potentially liable.

Court filings indicate the plaintiffs want Remington to produce all documents showing how the company uses video games to promote the weapon, any Internet advertising done to promote the weapon for home defense use or as gifts, and the company's policies going back to its inception on gun safety and gun storage.

The suit includes references to advertising copy for Bushmaster rifles, including such lines as "the uncompromising choice when you demand a rifle as mission-adaptable as you are" and "Forces of opposition, bow down. You are single-handedly outnumbered."

Bellis has previously ruled against the gun manufacturers efforts to dismiss the case under PLCAA. She has ordered discovery to begin although attorneys for the gun manufacture's have tried to stall that process.

They are now asking for Bellis to issue a confidentiality order prohibiting plaintiffs' attorneys from revealing any documents that they may turn over. Bellis has ordered both sides to file written briefs on that issue by July 12.