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Lawsuits claim gunmaker can be held liable in the Uvalde school massacre

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Federal law protects the firearms industry from lawsuits if their products are misused, but the law has exceptions. And two lawsuits filed after last year's school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, allege that the maker of the weapon, Georgia-based Daniel Defense, can be held liable. The reason, according to some legal experts, is how they market their products. From member station WABE in Atlanta, Sam Gringlas reports.

SAM GRINGLAS, BYLINE: May 24, 2022, was awards day at Robb Elementary School. Fourth-grader Mayah Zamora won three - math, robotics and honor roll. Not long after, an 18-year-old walked into the school and started shooting. Mayah had to be airlifted to a hospital and has had more than 60 surgeries. Christina Zamora says her daughter had been a fearless child but not anymore.

CHRISTINA ZAMORA: Mayah shows a fear of this world that she had never shown before. Someone unexpectedly knocking on the door is a scary trigger for her.

GRINGLAS: Last year the Zamoras became the second family to file a lawsuit against the school district, law enforcement, the gun store and gun-maker Daniel Defense.

ZAMORA: We need to speak up for our daughter, for our family, for children in the future. Maybe, you know, this will make a change. Nineteen children died. They were massacred by an 18-year-old boy. There's something wrong there.

GRINGLAS: In 2005, Congress granted broad immunity to gun manufacturers. But some legal experts believe gun-makers can be held responsible for these mass shootings if they deceptively market their products. Georgia State University law professor Timothy Lytton says Daniel Defense is notorious for its provocative marketing. Lytton is an expert on health and safety liability and says the lawsuits argue the company violated federal trade law by unfairly marketing its products to civilians as tools for offensive, military-style operations.

TIMOTHY LYTTON: And they also alleged that the placement of this AR-15-style weapon in video games allowed young men in particular to fantasize about use of this weapon in a way that would simulate the kind of violence that we saw in Uvalde.

GRINGLAS: After the Sandy Hook school shooting, families made a similar argument in Connecticut against the gun-maker Remington, which was in bankruptcy at the time. And while the families won a $73 million payment, it didn't change a whole lot.

LYTTON: It's not like a manufacturer came to the table and said, we admit liability here for the carelessness of our marketing practices. This was a bankruptcy in which bankruptcy creditors paid out in order to get the company back into business.

GRINGLAS: So while gun control supporters cheered the settlement, the suit left a lot of legal questions unresolved, meaning Uvalde could be the biggest test yet of the industry's liability protections. Daniel Defense didn't respond to an interview request but has called the lawsuit politically motivated and legally unfounded. Mark Oliva is a spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, an industry group.

MARK OLIVA: Trying to sue a firearm manufacturer for the crimes committed by a remote third party would be the same thing as trying to sue Ford and Anheuser-Busch for the deaths caused by drunk driving.

GRINGLAS: If the Uvalde cases get past the immunity law and are allowed a trial, the courts would still have to consider another set of thorny questions, like whether the company's marketing is protected by the First Amendment. But Lytton says whatever happens, these cases put more focus on gun-makers.

LYTTON: You only need one or two lawsuits to win to transform the whole industry. If it got planted in Connecticut and it flowers in Uvalde, that might be enough. And if it never takes root there, it's likely to pop up in Chicago or in California.

GRINGLAS: Some states are passing laws that would make it easier to file these suits against gun-makers. But Mark Oliva says the industry is pushing back.

OLIVA: The question you're asking me then, Sam, is, are we going to bend to the idea that we're going to suffer death through a thousand cuts? I think your answer to that is we are challenging the law in New York. We are challenging the law in New Jersey. We've challenged the law in Delaware.

GRINGLAS: Back in Texas, the Zamoras want to make Wednesday's anniversary as normal a day as they can. Right now, they're focused on their daughter's recovery, but they hope accountability will come too. For NPR News, I'm Sam Gringlas in Atlanta.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIC HUTCHINSON SONG, "TAKE IT EASY ON ME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sam Gringlas is a journalist at NPR's All Things Considered. In 2020, he helped cover the presidential election with NPR's Washington Desk and has also reported for NPR's business desk covering the workforce. He's produced and reported with NPR from across the country, as well as China and Mexico, covering topics like politics, trade, the environment, immigration and breaking news. He started as an intern at All Things Considered after graduating with a public policy degree from the University of Michigan, where he was the managing news editor at The Michigan Daily. He's a native Michigander.