Video: Firing an AR-15-style rifle
Columnist Mike Kelly fires an AR-15-style rifle.
We’ll never know what Adam Lanza was thinking when he picked up his AR-15 assault rifle on a December morning in 2012 and turned a Connecticut elementary school into a shooting gallery. He killed himself after murdering 20 first graders and six adult educators at the Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.
But finally the gun-maker who marketed that AR-15 killing machine to appeal to emotionally troubled young men such as Lanza is paying a price.
In a legal settlement reached this week after years of wrangling, the families of five of the children and four adults killed by 20-year-old Lanza will share $73 million from the insurance company that represented the now-bankrupt Remington Arms Company, which produced Lanza’s AR-15 Bushmaster rifle.
The settlement is being hailed by gun control advocates as a major victory. Or as Josh Koskoff, the lead attorney for the victims noted:
“These nine families have shared a single goal from the very beginning: to do whatever they could to help prevent the next Sandy Hook. It is hard to imagine an outcome that better accomplishes that goal.”
Koskoff’s jubilation is understandable — this win is clearly important, perhaps ground-breaking. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The movement to bring reasonable controls over firearms in America — especially military-style guns such as the AR-15, which is basically a semi-automatic copy of the same gun U.S. soldiers have carried for decades -— is far from over.
You might even say the challenges today are worse than they were on Dec. 14, 2012, when Lanza went on his shooting spree at the school after first killing his mother.
Awash in weaponry
Let’s start with the numbers.
America is now home to more than 393 million guns according to the Swiss-based Small Arms Survey. That figure, which dates back to 2018, the last year a reliable count of the nation’s handguns was compiled, may actually be higher now. But you get the point: America is awash in guns — about 120 firearms for every 100 of us.
Most of the 393 million weapons are handguns. But sales of all firearms — especially assault rifles — have risen in recent years despite polls that show a majority of Americans support more stringent controls on these kinds of weapons in the wake of a troubling series of mass shootings.
The weapon of choice in most mass shootings is the AR-15-style assault rifle, which is made by a variety of gun manufacturers now. Just because Remington Arms Company, which produced Adam Lanza’s killer gun, is bankrupt doesn’t mean that the AR-15 is suddenly off the market. In fact, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a gun rights advocacy group, estimates that more than 20 million military-style assault rifles such as the AR-15 are in circulation in America.
Some of these guns are owned by police departments. But the majority are in the hands of civilians and are classified as “modern sports rifles” by the Sports Foundation. Note the significance of that description. Guns designed for the battlefield are now called “sports rifles.” When it comes to guns, fact is stranger than fiction.
How to address legal guns?
Let’s turn next to the laws.
Plenty of progressive politicians, including many in New York and New Jersey, have proposed bans on assault rifles. But the ban would apply only to new sales of these guns. There is no provision to confiscate older models — many of them legally owned by law-abiding people.
And that’s just the problem. Adam Lanza was not a legal gun owner. His mother was, however. She legally purchased the AR-15. Adam merely took the gun from her, killing her first then attacking the school. Simply put: It’s very easy to buy a gun in America. From there, it’s too easy for even legally owned guns to fall into the hands of killers. And with so many of these military-style weapons already in circulation, any legislative ban on these guns would be meaningless, experts say.
This brings us to this week’s Sandy Hook legal case – and why it is significant.
In praising the settlement, President Joe Biden noted correctly that it “does not erase the pain of that tragic day” but nevertheless “does begin the necessary work of holding gun manufacturers accountable for manufacturing weapons of war and irresponsibly marketing these firearms.”
Pay attention to two words in Biden’s statement — “manufacturing” and “marketing.”
It’s one thing for firearms makers to produce these guns. (Just look at the numbers.) But the Sandy Hook legal case found that gun-makers could now be vulnerable in the way they market these guns.
Lawyers for the Sandy Hook families pointed out that Remington depicted its AR-15 Bushmaster as a weapon of war — but for civilians. The company introduced slogans and allowed the gun to appear in combat video games. The goal was to appeal to so-called “couch commandoes” who love to get decked out in camouflage clothing and strap themselves with all manner of holsters, body armor and other military gear.
Some of these guys see themselves as citizen soldiers. But what battle are they fighting? Sadly, we saw large numbers of them on Jan. 6, 2021 during the assault on the U.S. Capitol.
One advertisement for the AR-15 carried this uber-masculine slogan: “Consider your man card issued.”
The meaning was clear. Owning this gun is a manly act. Such marketing is believed to have appealed to Adam Lanza and others who have carried out mass shootings in recent years.
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Future avenues to regulate
Such was the argument made by the lawyers for the Sandy Hook families.
The families had been blocked from pursing legal action against the gun manufacturers by the 2005 federal Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which was signed by President George W. Bush a year after a gun-maker and weapons dealer agreed to pay $2.5 million to the families of people killed in sniper attacks in 2001 in Washington, Maryland and Virginia.
The $2.5 million payout shocked the gun lobby. So it gathered its Republican supporters and passed what it thought was a strong federal law to protect itself from any liability over future mass killings. Bush, who was no friend of gun control advocates, said the federal law would “stem frivolous lawsuits.”
The Sandy Hook lawyers turned to another law, however — a Connecticut state consumer protection provision that prohibited marketing of any product that encouraged illegal behavior.
Such consumer laws could now be an opening for future lawsuits against gun-makers, experts say. New York already has a state consumer law like Connecticut’s. A similar bill has been introduced in California. Lawmakers in New Jersey and several other states are considering similar measures.
But the list of states willing to take this step is short.
When it comes to controlling guns, most states are fearful of introducing strong restrictions and angering the National Rifle Association. States such as New Jersey and New York continually brag about their strong gun laws. But on the ground, in cities such as Paterson, Newark and New York, police say they are facing an influx of illegal guns from other states where gun restrictions are far more lax.
What happened this week in Connecticut and with some of the Sandy Hook families should not be overlooked. The $73 million settlement was a clear win for them.
But let’s not forget that the war over guns in America is far from over.
It’s barely begun.
Mike Kelly is an award-winning columnist for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to his insightful thoughts on how we live life in New Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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