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Sandy Hook shooting: The unprecedented $73M settlement with gunmaker Remington

How Sandy Hook families, gunmaker settled unprecedented lawsuit
How Sandy Hook families, gunmaker settled unprecedented lawsuit 11:16

On Tuesday, just hours after a gunman entered an elementary school classroom in Uvalde, Texas, and killed 19 students and two teachers, Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, from Connecticut (home to the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown), spoke passionately on the Senate floor: "Why? Why are we here, if not to try to make sure that fewer schools and fewer communities go through what Sandy Hook has gone through, what Uvalde is going through? … I am here on this floor to beg – to literally get down on my hands and knees and beg my colleagues: Find a path forward here."

Meanwhile, Republican Senator Ted Cruz, of Texas, said, "The policies the Democrats are proposing, they wouldn't have stopped this crime or any others. They're not focused on stopping crimes.  Their solution is to try to take away your firearms."

In 2013, four months after the Sandy Hook shooting, Francine Wheeler, along with her husband David, made an impassioned plea: "Please help us do something before our tragedy becomes your tragedy. Sometimes, I close my eyes and all I can remember is that awful day waiting at the Sandy Hook Volunteer Firehouse for the boy who would never come home."

Correspondent Tracy Smith asked the Wheelers, "What were you hoping for at that point?"

"If I could have people empathize with me as a parent, then maybe you would vote for the background check," Francine replied. "So, if you bought a gun at gun show and if you bought a gun on the internet, you'd have a background check. That's what we were fighting for."

Later that month, those gun law amendments were rejected by the Senate, failing to get the required 60 votes to overcome a filibuster.

The Wheelers began looking for other ways to make change.  "We will never stop being Ben's parents," said David. "It's just that our parenting experience is now frozen."

Their son, Ben, was six years old when he was killed. "In the small classroom where our son was in school, law enforcement recovered 80 casings. Eighty," David said.

All from one AR-15 style rifle. In total: 154 rounds in less than five minutes. 

David said, "If I had been told when Ben was born that I would only get six years with him, would I have done it? Absolutely, absolutely, unquestioningly, yes. But what happens after that is part of his legacy, right? What do we have to do to make sure no other mother and father ever go through this?"

What the Wheelers, and eight other Sandy Hook families, did at first seemed impossible. They sued the gunmaker, Remington Arms, and in February they settled the lawsuit for $73 million. It's the largest payout by a gun company to victims of a mass shooting. 

Earlier this month, the family of Andre Mackneil, who was killed in the May 14 Buffalo shooting, announced they, too, will sue Remington Arms, which made the gun used at the Tops Supermarket.

One of their lawyer's first calls was to Josh Koskoff, who represented the Sandy Hook families.

Smith asked Koskoff, "How much did you know about guns going into this case?"

"If there was such a thing as less than zero, I would say that," he replied. "Nothing about guns, nothing about gun law."

Koskoff said he approached the case like a puzzle. First, he studied everything he could about the AR-15 style rifle. "It's the weapon that the United States military considers the most effective, efficient, lethal weapon for its soldiers," he said.

The AR-15 was developed by Armalite as a military rifle in the 1950s. (AR, commonly thought to stand for "assault rifle," in fact stands for "Armalite Rifle.")

Early in the 1960s, the Department of Defense field-tested the weapon. Koskoff showed Smith the results: "This is not for the faint of heart, but it is important to know that this is no ordinary firearm.  'A back wound caused the thoracic cavity to explode.' 'Stomach wound caused the abdominal cavity to explode.' 'Chest wound, from right to left, destroyed the thoracic cavity.'"

In the late '60s, a semi-automatic version was made for civilians. And by the time of the Sandy Hook massacre, Remington Arms and their Bushmaster brand had the most popular AR-15 style rifles on the market. 

Koskoff said, "Up until 2005, they sold about 100,000 units a year. By 2012, the year of the shooting, they were up to 2.1 million. And the weapon itself didn't change. So, what changed? The marketing."

And there was another change that may have emboldened gun manufacturers, a little-talked-about law, passed in 2005. Known as PLCAA (Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act), it's a way to protect gun companies from liability for shootings. "It basically eliminates the common law rights that people would otherwise have to bring a lawsuit against automobile industry or a tobacco industry or a pharmaceutical industry," Koskoff said.

But the law contains a few exceptions, including one that allowed Koskoff to go after how the gun was marketed. "Until our case, I think people thought of it as a perfect immunity that couldn't ever be overcome," he said. "But they engaged in marketing that anybody would say was just beyond the pale – immoral, unethical."

Remington Arms/Bushmaster

Koskoff said Remington not only aimed ads like these at lonely young men; they highlighted the gun's ability to inflict mass casualties.

Remington Arms/Bushmaster

Another ad reads: "Forces of opposition, bow down. You are single-handedly outnumbered."

Remington Arms/Bushmaster

Koskoff said, "There's no non-criminal use for making your forces of opposition 'bow down' in our neighborhoods and our towns. That's an assault, period."

According to Koskoff, the key to the case was tying the Remington marketing to the 20-year-old shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Smith said, "He didn't go out and buy the gun; his mom bought the gun, and then just left it unlocked."

"Well, that's the way marketing works," Koskoff said. "Marketing isn't targeting the purchaser; they're targeting the end user. No better example of this than Disney. Disney's not marketing their products to us. They're marketing it to our kids.

"They didn't aggressively market their combat weapon to a suburban housewife; they aggressively marketed a combat weapon to her troubled son."

The Sandy Hook shooter was a frequent player of the video game "Call of Duty." Koskoff had played the game with his own son, and saw something familiar in a crime scene photograph: two 30-round magazines duct-taped together. From "Call of Duty," Koskoff knew what its purpose was: "When you were playing the game, it allowed for almost zero downtime to quote/unquote 'change mags.'"

"So, you fire 30 shots, flip it?" Smith asked.

"You could kill 60 people with this instead of 30, with almost no lag."

Duct-taped magazines found at the scene of the Sandy Hook school shooting resembled the duct-taped magazines featured in "Call of Duty," the video game which had licensed Remington's Bushmaster ACR for use.  CBS News

The simulated gun in "Call of Duty" was Remington's Bushmaster ACR (Adaptive Combat Rifle). Koskoff said Remington Arms licensed the AR-15 style gun for the video game. It was part of the gun company's marketing plan.

"This allowed children and teenagers to experience what it was like to use a combat weapon," he said. "You could feel the vibrations of the controller. Before this, to actually understand how a weapon worked or felt, you'd have to go to a gun range. And no gun seller is gonna have a child come in and test out an AR-15. But they don't have to anymore."

"So, a kid could be sitting on his couch, feeling what an AR-15 felt like to shoot?" Smith asked.

"There are kids sitting on the couch right now doing exactly that."

Like many parents, David and Francine Wheeler had not seen any of the Remington marketing, until this case.  "I was like, you've gotta be kidding me," Francine said.

David said, "I was aghast. Unbelievable. My first thought was, 'Do you think this is a game? My son is gone.'"

Josh Koskoff said the settlement's $73 million will be distributed among the nine plaintiff families.  And Remington's internal memos, also turned over in the agreement, will be released to the public. 

Smith asked, "What will these documents show?

He replied, "It'll just teach us a lesson that we've all learned, which is that greed kills."

He said the case is about corporate misconduct, not politics: "This company just crossed a line. And it exposes all of us to risk. The shooter at Sandy Hook didn't line up children of gun owners and children of non-gun owners, or Democrats and Republicans; he shot everybody."

Gun industry representatives argue the Remington suit is unusual because it was settled after Remington went bankrupt. In a statement, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a firearm trade association, said: "This settlement orchestrated by insurance companies has no impact on the strength and efficacy of (PLCAA) which remains the law of the land. PLCAA will continue to block baseless lawsuits that attempt to blame lawful industry companies for the criminal acts of third parties."

Francine and David Wheeler have always said they wanted to save other families from going through what they have. The events of recent weeks show their lawsuit hasn't stopped mass shootings. But, they say, it's a start.

"We hope that this will make changes in the future," Francine said. "I have hope. I always have. I've never given up hope. Otherwise, I probably would have never left my bed."

"And you're still hopeful?" Smith asked.

"Yeah. And I grieve. I have both at the same time. Every day. But I have hope, yeah."

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Story produced by Mary Raffalli. Editor: Ed Givnish. 

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