Sandy Hook settlement not enough

Gun News

The $73 million settlement by gunmaker Remington with the families of nine victims of the Sandy Hook school massacre was unprecedented. President Joe Biden called it “historic.”

That’s all true, but it’s also not nearly enough.

“The settlement is a small payment on a very large bill that is long overdue,” said Josh Sugarmann, founder and executive director of the D.C.-based Violence Policy Center — and a native of Newtown, where the shooting took place.

This isn’t a gun manufacturer’s first loss in court. In 2004, the families of some of the victims of the D.C. sniper were awarded $2.5 million; $550,000 of that came from Bushmaster Firearms. At the time, Bushmaster’s attorney said the settlement wouldn’t change the way the company did business.

It didn’t have to. The gun industry has long been paying for legislative armor. Last year, according to the Open Secrets, a nonprofit that tracks political financing, the industry spent $13.59 million on lobbying. That’s a lot, until you consider that the year after Sandy Hook, the industry spent an all-time high of $15.29 million on lobbying. One of the biggest spenders is the Newtown-based National Shooting Sports Foundation, which last year spent $5 million on lobbying.

That’s not their only armor. Since 2005, the gun industry has enjoyed unique and broad immunity from most lawsuits when their products are used to commit a crime. The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush, was the federal government’s answer to civil lawsuits launched by people who wanted to address gun violence. The bill was sponsored by then-Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, an NRA board member whom you might remember as the guy who was caught in an airport bathroom sex sting and who then used campaign funds to pay for his legal defense.

According to the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety, 16 states — Connecticut among them — have rejected the immunity. In 2019, the Connecticut state Supreme Court cleared the way for the $73 million settlement, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case. Both of the state’s U.S. senators have called for the repeal of the 2005 law, as has President Biden.

The Sandy Hook settlement sidestepped the stipulations of Larry’s Law with a brilliant legal strategy that focused on the marketing tactics that made the gun used by the Sandy Hook shooter so attractive.

For decades, the gun industry has moved, hydralike, to snag untapped markets now that older white men, their original customers, are dying off and/or losing interest in firearms. While Remington wheezed its way to oblivion, the company created some of the most irresponsible ad campaigns imaginable.

How bad was it? In the 2019 book “Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland,” author Jonathan M. Metzl examined one of Bushmaster’s more popular ad campaigns, “The Man Card,” as in “Consider your man card reissued.” That ad campaign (since removed) asked would-be customers to answer some fairly predictable manly questions (Is tofu a meat substitute? Can you change a tire?), and then customers would get cards asserting that they were, in fact, men. The card was good for a year.

The campaign didn’t get much notice until the website Huffington Post reported it after Sandy Hook.

That’s a funny campaign when it’s used to sell, say, Old Spice, but these are guns, and the target market — young men — could not be trusted to be in on the joke. Other gun ads range from promising men that holding a Tavor semi-automatic can restore the “balance of power” — make of that what you will — or a Glock can restore the “confidence to live your life.”

(Men? I say this as your sister: If you need a gun to restore your confidence, that’s not confidence you’re buying. That’s toxicity.)

A 2018 Violence Policy Center study of Bushmaster’s ads found increased terminology with phrases such as “bravery on duty,” “control your destiny” and “the leaders others follow.” The ads were aimed at older men, who might already own guns for sport, and young men who have zero interest in hunting but respond to, as one gun industry trade magazine put it, the “tactical coolness factor.”

This cancer runs industry-wide. Over time, the National Rifle Association, which filed for bankruptcy last year, became nothing more than a soulless gun-delivery system, and in 1995, after a particularly awful NRA fundraising letter that slammed federal agents, former President George H.W. Bush tore up his lifetime membership card.

Never one to waste a crisis, the NRA has used the Oklahoma City bombing, Hurricane Katrina and even the pandemic to ask for money. Just look at the fearmongering pile of nonsense at the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action website, the organization’s lobbying arm. There’s a killer virus about, and the NRA says we need guns (to shoot the virus? I’m not following but then, I’m not an NRA member).

As Sugarmann says, the Remington settlement should serve notice to the rest of us: This is what the U.S. gun industry has become.

“What we have to recognize is that it’s like any other industry, bottom line, profit-driven,” Sugarmann told me. “They market and consistently work to churn out new customers. The only difference is that they don’t come under health and safety regulations that control all other products sold in this country.”

The industry has worked tirelessly to exploit its unique protection. Some of the guns it pushes onto the market aren’t for hunting and sport. Those guns are meant for killing, and if this is our first step toward holding these blood-garglers accountable, I’m here for it.

Susan Campbell
is the author of “Frog Hollow: Stories from an American Neighborhood,” “Tempest-Tossed: The Spirit of Isabella Beecher Hooker” and “Dating Jesus: A Story of Fundamentalism, Feminism and the American Girl.” She is Distinguished Lecturer at the University of New Haven, where she teaches journalism.

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