Three years ago on Monday, Newtown, Connecticut was plunged into a nightmare when a troubled young man opened fire using a semi-automatic weapon at Sandy Hook elementary school. Twenty children and six staff members were killed.
If there was ever a moment that could bring together a nation fiercely divided on guns, surely this was it. But in the years since, attempts to pass federal gun control legislation have gone nowhere, a testament to the formidable power of a gun lobby guided by the National Rifle Association’s dictum: “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
But where momentum for change has stalled in Congress, supporters of gun control see hope in the courts and state legislatures.
One year ago, family members of some Sandy Hook victims filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Bushmaster, the manufacturer of the rifle used by the gunman, Adam Lanza. In October, the lawsuit was moved from federal court back to state court, where it may have a better chance of succeeding.
“The federal court recognized pretty clearly that the immunity statute does not on its face bar our claim, which is a very significant development,” said Joshua Koskoff, an attorney for the victims’ families.
He was referring to the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act , which in effect shields gun manufacturers and sellers from being held liable for selling firearms that end up in criminal hands.
The Newtown lawsuit alleges that Remington’s Bushmaster AR-15, used to kill 26 people at Sandy Hook, is a military weapon designed for war, and thus too dangerous to sell to the general public. Remington disputes this.
That the case was returned to Connecticut, where it may receive more sympathetic hearing, is a small achievement in what will be a very long and uphill battle for the families, said Timothy Lytton, a law professor at Georgia State University College of Law and editor of Suing the Gun Industry: A Battle at the Crossroads of Gun Control and Mass Torts.
Perhaps a more encouraging sign was the verdict reached in the Badger Guns case in Wisconsin, Lytton said.
In October, a jury found that Badger Guns, a firearm shop in suburban Milwaukee, broke federal law when it negligently sold a gun that was used to shoot and injure two officers to a “straw buyer”, someone who illegally purchases a weapon for someone else.
Lawyers for the shop invoked the protection statute, which was passed in 2005 and received forcible support from the NRA. The controversial statute has been used to dismiss several lawsuits, including one brought earlier this year by the parents of one of the 12 victims of the 2012 Aurora cinema shooting .
Yet the jury in Wisconsin ordered the owners of Badger Guns to pay the victims nearly $6m (reports on Saturday placed the settlement at $1m). The first-of-its-kind verdict “suggests that it might be possible to hold retailers liable”, Lytton said.
In another setback for the gun lobby, the US supreme court refused to hear a second amendment challenge to a ban on semi-automatic assault rifles and large-capacity ammunition magazines in the Chicago suburb of Highland.
The NRA did not respond in time for a request for comment for this piece.
“There is certainly cause for optimism that the stranglehold that the gun lobby held in American politics for a number of years may be weakening,” said Adam Skaggs, an attorney for Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control advocacy group backed by former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg.
“They’re facing new and better organized opposition in states around the country where they try to impose their agenda.”
Everytown has found success in taking its fight to statehouses rather than the US Congress. Despite a number of setbacks, according to Everytown’s end of the year assessment gun control advocates managed to push through background check legislation in Oregon in May – as the sixth state to do so since Newtown – and block dozens of NRA-backed bills.
There is also hope of action at the executive level. A top adviser to President Obama revealed last week that the president has directed his team to finalise “in short order” recommendations that will keep guns out of the wrong hands, including expanded background checks.
After the Newtown shooting, in January 2013, Obama announced 23 executive actions that included banning automatic weapons, limiting magazines to 10 bullets, introducing background checks for all firearms buyers and increasing scrutiny of mental health patients. But those efforts foundered in Congress.
Yet as the third anniversary of the Newtown shooting approaches, families in Roseburg, Oregon, Colorado Springs and San Bernardino, California, are mourning the latest victims of high-profile gun attacks.
“My sense is that as this phenomenon continues on, Sandy Hook will stand out as a particularly ugly incident,” Lytton said. “I’m not sure that it marks any particular shift in gun control.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2015