Three people who attended the country music festival where a gunman killed 58 and injured hundreds more last week in Las Vegas have filed a lawsuit against manufacturers of bump stocks, devices that modify a semiautomatic rifle to mimic automatic fire.
The class-action suit, as reported by Courthouse News, targets Slide Fire Solutions, one of the most well-known makers of the bump stock, and additional unnamed manufacturers. Investigators recovered a dozen of the devices from the shooting suspect’s hotel room. Audio and video recordings show the shooter firing in sustained bursts on the crowd below.
“The damage caused to Plaintiffs resulted from the military-style arsenal that Defendants manufactured, marketed, and sold to the general public, without any reasonable measures of safeguards, and which the killer foreseeably used to such horrific results,” the complaint reads.
The lawsuit claims that the manufacturers were negligent by developing bump stocks under the guise of helping people with disabilities shoot easier, while marketing the devices as easy ways to get around federal law and obtain a machine gun.
“Slide Fire’s bump stocks are purportedly designed for the disabled and intended to assist persons whose hands have limited mobility using firearms,” it reads. “However, statements made by Slide Fire inventor, Jeremiah Cottle, and Defendant’s marketing suggest otherwise.”
The suit points to an article in the gun industry publication Ammoland, in which Cottle is quoted as saying the product was designed for “people, like me, [who] love full auto.”
The suit asks for the defendants to pay for costs associated with emotional distress, and for the court to award damages. Lawyers from the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence and the Las Vegas law firm Eglet Prince are representing the music festival attendees.
A key hurdle the case will face if it moves forward is the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), which Congress passed in 2005. The law shields the gun industry from almost all legal liability for the crimes committed with its products. But it is not clear whether its protective cloak extends to the makers of gun accessories like bump stocks. PLCAA blocks lawsuits against makers of “qualified products,” which include “component parts of a firearm or ammunition.” If bump stocks are not a qualified product, theoretically, a person could bypass PLCAA and his suit against the manufacturer would survive.
The National Rifle Association and leaders of the gun industry lobbied for PLCAA at a moment when cities were suing gunmakers for the costs of managing everyday gun crime. It has derailed many legal cases against gun makers and sellers, including the lawsuit that Sandy Hook parents filed against Bushmaster for selling AR-15s to civilians.
Reached by phone on Tuesday, Jonathan Lowy, an attorney for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which brought the lawsuit on behalf of the plaintiffs, said that PLCAA does not apply to the case. “This does not involve a firearm, and PLCAA covers licensed sales of firearms and ammunition,” he said. “This is neither. This is an accessory.”
He added: “There’s a broader principle at stake, which is that companies that make and sell these various types of accessories that enable people to circumvent the law need to be sent a message and be held accountable. The principal that we hope to communicate goes beyond bump stocks.”
Timothy Lytton, a law professor Georgia State University and the author of Suing the Gun Industry, said there isn’t much legal precedent on the specific question of whether aftermarket accessories like bump stocks are “qualified” products under PLCAA. But, he said, he doubts that a lawsuit against bump-stock makers would survive a challenge. “This is exactly the type of lawsuit PLCAA was meant to block,” he said. “It’s suing a company for the criminal misuse of their product.”
He added that PLCAA has previously halted lawsuits against makers of ammunition clips and “cop killer” bullets that fragment when they enter flesh.
Lawyers have tried to get around PLCAA by arguing that gun sellers were negligent in selling weapons to people who should not have had them. Plaintiffs in the Sandy Hook lawsuit tested the limits of this idea by arguing that it was negligent for Bushmaster, the maker of the AR-15, to make the rifle available for purchase by any civilian consumer. That argument failed. A Connecticut state court judge wrote that Bushmaster’s actions did not fit the law’s idea of negligence.
Jennifer Mascia provided additional reporting