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Opinion Thank you, Sandy Hook families, for taking on the gunmakers

A Sandy Hook sign is pictured on Feb. 15 in Newtown, Conn. Families of victims reached a settlement with Remington Arms this week. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Sandy Hook families win ‘unwinnable’ case.”

Yes, this was the best headline heralding the victory Tuesday of nine families of Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victims in their lawsuit against the now-bankrupt Remington Arms Co. The gunmaker manufactured the AR-15-style weapon used to murder 20 first-graders and six adults on Dec. 14, 2012, in Newtown, Conn.

The families’ local paper in Danbury, Conn., the News-Times, was right to underscore how almost no one thought the plaintiffs could win, given the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act of 2005. This scandalous and Orwellian-named federal law was designed to shield gunmakers from lawsuits.

It’s amazing when you think about it: The makers of merchandise so destructive were granted immunity from the forms of accountability that are typically imposed on manufacturers of all manner of other goods.

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The genius of the Sandy Hook families and their lawyers was to cite a state law, the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act, and to focus on the marketing practices used to sell Remington’s Bushmaster rifle.

These practices, they argued, encouraged its illegal use and might have been especially enticing to troubled young men — such as the 20-year-old who carried out the Sandy Hook massacre.

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One ad showed an image of the Bushmaster with the words “Consider your man card reissued.” Another included the phrase, “Forces of opposition, bow down. You are single-handedly outnumbered.”

God save our republic.

The $73 million awarded to the families — to be paid by Remington’s insurance companies — is, according to the New York Times, believed to be the largest payout by a gun company in a mass-shooting case. More important going forward is that the company agreed to release thousands of pages of internal documents.

Knowing the impact this could have on the longer-term battle over gun violence, the families made release of this information a linchpin of their suit. Their position, as lawyer Joshua Koskoff put it, was: “No documents, no deal.”

The Sandy Hook suit and the litigation it could now encourage will put more information in the public’s hands about the corporate behavior of gunmakers. This, in turn, could begin to change the gun debate in fundamental ways.

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David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, drew a parallel to the long campaign around the dangers of smoking.

“One of the big successes in public health in the last 30 years is tobacco,” said Hemenway, the author of “While We Were Sleeping: Success Stories In Injury And Violence Prevention” and a professor of public health. “And one of the great things that helped in that success were the lawsuits.”

What the lawsuits made clear is that "these were bad actors” who “wanted to hook young people.” He added: “The whole industry became something of a pariah.”

David Pucino, deputy chief counsel at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said the Sandy Hook case “gives a road map for the kinds of cases that can be brought in the future” and “stands to open the court door to a lot of new families.”

He, too, drew a parallel to the tobacco cases. Just as litigation helped make public what Big Tobacco knew about the dangers of its products — perils that companies spent years denying or playing down — so might the gun companies be challenged on their own marketing claims, particularly the idea that owning a gun increases personal safety. “That is at the heart of so much of the gun industry’s marketing,” he said.

This assertion flies in the face of many studies, by Hemenway and others, showing “that owning a gun doesn’t make you or your family safer. It makes you less safe,” Pucino said.

“Companies must know this research and they advertise contrary messages anyway,” he told me. “Discovery can provide a window into what these companies know, how they frame their messages and their tolerance for false messages.”

The gun companies and the gun lobby have already signaled they will do all in their power to prevent this. Their spokesmen expressed frustration with Remington’s four insurers for settling. No doubt they are worried that insurance companies might become increasingly wary of the weapons industry.

The Sandy Hook families fought this case even though they were told repeatedly they couldn’t win. They battled for the right to disseminate information even though that meant rejecting an earlier settlement offer.

And they were willing to relive an unspeakable tragedy for a decade to achieve accountability and a degree of justice. The nation owes them an incalculable debt.

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