Court Battles

Judge rules synagogue shooting victims can sue Smith & Wesson

A San Diego judge ruled last week that the survivors and families of victims of a 2019 shooting at a California synagogue can sue Smith & Wesson, the manufacturer of the weapon used in the incident, in addition to the gun store that sold it.

Reuters reported that San Diego Superior Court Judge Kenneth Medel dismissed a claim from Smith & Wesson that the lawsuit was not permitted based on the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), a regulation that protects gunmakers and sellers from some responsibility when their products are used for crimes.

An accused gunman, later identified as John Earnest, who was 19 at the time of the incident, opened fire at the Chabad of Poway Synagogue in Poway, Calif., in April 2019, killing one worshiper and injuring three other people, including a rabbi and an 8-year-old, according to The Washington Post.

Earnest is facing state and federal prosecution on charges including murder, hate crimes and alleged civil rights violations, according to the Post. He did not have a hunting license at the time, which would have barred him from California's minimum age of 21 for owning long guns.

Jonathan Lowy, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, called the judge's ruling a "victory."

"Today's judgment is a victory, and an important step on the road to justice for the victims of the shooting at Chabad of Poway Synagogue, and all Americans who believe that the gun industry is not above the law," Lowy said, according to Reuters.

"We look forward to proving our case in court, and working to prevent future tragedies," he added.

The Hill reached out to Smith & Wesson for comment.

The plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in June 2020 claiming that Smith & Wesson breached state law by manufacturing the M&P15 rifle to be easily changed into an assault weapon, Reuters reported.

The "M&P" in the name of the gun reportedly stands for "Military and Police," even though they were largely sold to civilians, according to Reuters.

The lawsuit claimed that the company used marketing tactics "that attracted impulsive young men with military complexes who were particularly likely to be attracted to the unique ability of AR-15 style weapons," according to the wire service.

They argued that potential mass shooters would be attracted to the marketing of the gun, including Earnest.

The judge determined that the legal action at hand was under an exception to the PLCAA that permits lawsuits to be filed against gun manufacturers or sellers when state law is breached, according to Reuters. He said the lawsuit argues that the the company violated California's Unfair Competition Law, which prohibits deceptive marketing, thus being eligible for the PLCAA exception.

The ruling also now allows San Diego Guns, the store where Earnest purchased the rifle, to be sued, according to the Post.

The plaintiffs are asking for unspecified damages and an injunction that would mandate Smith & Wesson to halt its marketing campaign and change its distribution and sales tactics.

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