After each mass shooting in America, there is a push to do something about gun violence. After the slaughter at Sandy Hook Elementary School, some family members of the victims brought a lawsuit against Remington Arms. Remington manufactured the Bushmaster rifle used by the shooter. The lawsuit also includes Camfour (a firearm distributor) and Riverview Gun Sales (which sold the gun).
On the face of it, the case would seem to have no legal merit—the main reason being the 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, a 2005 federal law. This law serves as a protection for liability in regards to the legal sales of firearms. While what a law means amounts to the opinions of the adjudicators and enforcers, there would seem to be little grounds for a lawsuit in this case: a legal product, the Bushmaster, was manufactured, distributed and sold in accord with the laws. The only criminal activity was on the part of the shooter.
Interestingly, the case seems to be going forward. The attorney for the victims’ families, Joshua Koskoff, has contended that there is a legal foundation for the case. To be specific, he claims that the “negligent entrustment” exception of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act and the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act provide the opening needed.
One clear problem with using the negligent entrustment exception is that it seems to have been clearly intended for cases in which a gun is sold to a person who is threatening to do harm to others or visibly intoxicated. The situation in question does not meet this condition: the person who legally purchased the weapon was neither intoxicated nor threatening others.
Koskoff is taking an intriguing approach to the matter. He is not claiming that the person who bought the weapon was intoxicated or threatening; instead he is trying a rather different tactic.
His line of reasoning begins with the assertion that the semiautomatic AR-15 type rifles (the Bushmaster is one specific version) are essentially the same as the burst fire M-16 military rifle. His next step was to assert that, “It was Remington’s choice to entrust the most notorious military American killing machine to the public and to continue doing so in the face of mounting evidence of its association with mass murder of innocent civilians.”
One way to look at the argument is that Remington and the others were negligent because they were well aware that these weapons are dangerous and, more specifically, that they are linked to mass shootings. The obvious concern with this sort of reasoning is that it would seem to lay the foundation for a very broad principle of negligence. Under such a principle, anyone who manufactured or sold a product that has been used to create significant harm would be liable, to a degree, for that harm. Computer manufacturers could, for example, be held liable for hacking, phishing and other computer based crimes. As another example, alcohol manufacturers could be held accountable for crimes committed by drunks. As an extreme example, the manufacturers of the planes used on 9/11 could be taken as liable for the misuse of their products. This all seems absurd: manufacturers, distributors and sellers have little (or no) control over the use of their products and hence they cannot be held accountable. There are, of course exceptions—such as liability for selling drinks to someone already drunk. Obviously, the matter is quite different when people are harmed by defects or other problems with the products—the manufacturer is, for example, morally responsible for hazards presented by automobile ignitions that fail. This leads to a second possible interpretation of the argument.
Koskoff could also be taking as advancing the notion that the negligence arose not simply because the product has been misused by some to create significant harm, but that the product is so dangerous that allowing it to be sold at all constitutes negligence. While this might seem similar to the first interpretation, they are actually quite different. To illustrate this, consider the case of the computer. Under the first principle (that of potential misuse), making and selling computers could be seen as negligent because they are often used in various crimes. Under this principle (that of inherent danger), making and selling computers would not be seen as negligent because they are not inherently harmful (this could, of course, be argued). One way to view the danger is in terms of a defective product. However, the concern is not that the guns are defective—rather, the worry is that they work all too well. A more plausible approach would be that the harm arises not from any defect in the product, but from the product itself when it is working properly and used correctly. On this view, manufacturing, distributing and selling AR-15 style weapons would be analogous to making, distributing a lighting system that illuminated an area via dangerous radiation: it would be working as designed and defect free, yet would be a harmful product. The challenge would be, of course, to show that the weapons are inherently harmful to a degree that to manufacture, distribute and sell them would constitute negligence.
While I am not a lawyer, I Koskoff faces an “upmountain” battle. Even if his argument worked and showed that such guns are inherently dangerous to the public, the fact remains that the gun used in the shooting was manufactured, distributed and sold legally. As such, while this sort of argument would support the assertion that it should be made illegal to manufacture, distribute and sell such weapons, it does not support the claim of legal negligence on the part of the defendants: they fulfilled all their legal obligations. Naturally, the question of whether they were morally negligent or not is another issue.