Uvalde families put the US arms industry to the test

When Mayah Zamora was shot and wounded at Robb Elementary School, her family did what many massacre survivors do: they filed a series of lawsuits.

They sued the Uvalde, Texas, store that sold an AR-15-style assault rifle to the teen killer. They sued the gun manufacturer. They sued the police, who waited for 77 minutes in front of Mayah’s fourth grade classroom before stopping the massacre. By then, 19 boys and two teachers had already died.

“What we are looking for, above all, is some kind of justice,” explains Christina Zamora, Mayah’s mother.

gun violence

As the grim reality of gun violence drags on, both the US government and gun manufacturers have reached settlement agreements after some of the worst massacres involving big money. In April, the Justice Department announced a $144 million payment to relatives and families of victims of a 2017 Texas church attack carried out by a former Air Force airman with a criminal record.

The grieving families of survivors in Uvalde and other massacres say their demands are seeking accountability and preventing further attacks, whether through reforms, hurting arms industry profits, or bolstering a vetting whose flaws allowed the attackers to buy their weapons.

But despite two rulings last year forcing manufacturers to pay large sums and despite some Democratic-run states stripping away certain protections for this industry, lawsuits not only face big hurdles, they’re getting bigger in some places. .

On May 11, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed into law a new law protecting gun manufacturers from lawsuits, weeks after the killing of six people at a school in Nashville, the state capital.

First anniversary

Lawyers say the narrow path for victims to file lawsuits has begun to widen, including for families in Uvalde, as next Wednesday marks the one-year anniversary of the largest school shooting in Texas history.

“I think there are greater opportunities to enforce accountability than five to 10 years ago,” says Eric Tirschwell, executive director of Everytown for Gun Safety, an organization that has been filing lawsuits against the gun industry for years and is involved in the Uvalde case. .

The trajectory of massacre lawsuits is up and down. The arms industry enjoys the protection of a federal law called Protection of the Legal Trade in Arms, which, however, does not fully exempt or immunize manufacturers.

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Over the past decade, courts have thrown out numerous lawsuits, many of which were not against the industry, but accusations of negligence by the government or the localities where they occurred. In 2020, the casino company MGM Resorts International and its insurers agreed to pay $800 million after a massacre on the Las Vegas Strip left 58 dead and hundreds injured.

Last year, the maker of the rifle used in the 2012 Sandy Hook school massacre paid $73 million to families who accused Remington of targeting risky young men in its advertising. In Tennessee, the Republican promoter of the new state law used what happened in Connecticut as an argument in favor of the need to defend the industry: “Few companies can survive paying $73 million,” said state legislator Monty Fritts in February.

In Uvalde, the victims have accused Daniel Defense, manufacturer of the weapon used in the massacre, of making dangerous publicity. The company has denied this in court and industry chambers of business have rejected the argument since the Sandy Hook ruling.

“Commercial speech enjoys free speech,” said Mark Oliva, managing director of public affairs for the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

Lawsuits in Uvalde are in their early stages and not all families participate. The Zamoras decided to join once Mayah was released from the hospital, which happened more than two months after the fact and after dozens of operations. Parents hope she can return to face-to-face classes next year.

own experiences

After the Uvalde massacre, Sandy and Lonnie Phillips drove into town and talked to the families about their own experiences suing the gun industry: they lost and were ordered by the court to pay more than $200,000 to the defendants’ lawyers. . They ended up bankrupt.

Their daughter Jessica was killed in the 2012 Aurora, Colorado, movie theater massacre. Last month, the couple attended an event where Colorado Democratic Gov. Jared Polis signed laws seeking to make it easier to sue the industry, one of which exempts plaintiffs from paying if their claims are dismissed.

“They don’t know what they’re in for,” Lonnie Phillips said of the victims who sue. “They only know that they have lost a child and that someone must pay for it.”

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