The unfolding civil trial against Remington Arms Company over what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary school is rapidly approaching what could be a watershed moment in American gun politics: forcing a major arms manufacturer to disclose internal deliberations over how to manufacture and market assault weapons to the general public. And Remington is using every legal tool at its disposal to prevent that—even asking this week for a Connecticut judge to seal emerging evidence in the case.
The lawsuit, brought by some of the families and survivors from Sandy Hook, took several surprising turns this spring. First, a Connecticut judge refused to throw the case out, and later she ruled that the discovery process can begin. Legal experts didn’t give the case much chance of making it past an initial hearing, yet it has now lasted several months. They also didn’t anticipate the discovery phase beginning so quickly. Several legal scholars told The Nation earlier this year that discovery, if it ever came, was a long way off.
It’s still quite possible that the defendants—Remington Arms Company, which produced the Bushmaster XM-15 that Adam Lanza used at Sandy Hook to kill 26 people, along with Camfour, a middleman distributor and also a gun shop in East Windsor, Connecticut—will succeed in derailing the case, potentially by wielding the broad gunmaker immunity passed by Congress in 2006. The judge has not directly ruled yet on whether that immunity applies here.
But the discovery process is already underway. Lawyers for the Sandy Hook families told The Nation that for nearly a month they’ve been communicating with Remington about documents they would like turned over.
“We have a first set of requests. We’re looking for a broad range of information—financials, marketing documents, a lot of things related to the weapon and how it’s sold,” said Katie Mesner-Hage, one of the lawyers from Koskoff, Koskoff and Bieder who is working the Sandy Hook case.
The legal team is also scheduling depositions with Remington executives, in which they would have to testify under oath about the company’s practices when it comes to distributing the XM-15.
Once these documents are turned over and the depositions occur, they will be a matter of public record regardless of what happens with the case going forward. These revelations have the potential to shine new light on exactly what major arms companies believe about the lethality of assault weapons, and how they apply that knowledge during the mass-production and marketing process.
Remington, however, is determined to stop that information from ever becoming public. In Bridgeport Superior Court on Monday, the defense team raised the prospect of a protective order that would seal any discovery documents and keep them out of public view. They have until July 5 to file it.*
Companies facing civil suits of this nature commonly ask for protection of company information, but are generally only successful when they are seeking to protect genuine trade secrets or similar types of information. Mesner-Hage anticipates Remington will ask for a very broad protection order, covering almost everything that comes out in discovery, and that there will be subsequent legal tug-of-war over what will eventually become public.
The Sandy Hook families want as maximum sunlight into Remington’s activities. “There should be as much transparency as possible. This is not a case that should be conducted behind closed doors and with a lot of sealed documents,” said Mesner-Hage.
Meanwhile, several mass shootings have provided a grim backdrop to the ongoing legal case, most recently the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando—the worst yet in American history. The Sandy Hook families were in court for a scheduled hearing just over a week later.
“It was very surreal to have the horrific tragedy in Orlando happen just before we were set to argue in court,” said Mesner-Hage. “It hung over the proceedings to some extent, because how could it not.”
*This story has been updated to reflect the timing of the protective order.