Analysis & Comment

Opinion | American Gun Culture Goes on Trial

For years, uncompromising gun enthusiasts have demanded that politicians, the press and the American people never slander their beloved military-style semiautomatic rifles with the name “assault weapons.”

Even though the guns are marketed with military imagery. Even though there’s a thriving business in aftermarket accessories, like thermal scopes and high-capacity magazines made to “military specification.” Even after these lethal weapons have been used to kill scores of people in massacre after massacre after massacre.

Calling these rifles “assault weapons” is unfair, gun makers and their apologists insist, because it implies they are frightening weapons of war when they are sold for civilian use. This distinction, the fairness of it, matters not at all to the women, men and children wounded or killed by these guns.

The Connecticut Supreme Court on Thursday permitted a civil suit to move forward against the companies that manufactured and sold the weapon used by the gunman to fire 154 rounds during a five-minute rampage through Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. It was an unexpected loss for the firearms industry, which has long enjoyed federal protection — granted by Congress —  from legal redress for the victims of its products.

In this case, the court allowed the suit to proceed over whether the weapon maker violated state prohibitions against unfair trade practices. The plaintiffs argue that the AR-15-style rifle used in the attack had been marketed as a weapon of war in a campaign aimed deliberately at troubled young men like Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook gunman.

A trial could force gun companies to turn over internal communications about their advertising and sales operations. But the public doesn’t need internal emails to recognize the obvious incongruity between sanitized terminology like “modern sporting rifle” and ads with men dressed in tactical gear, swinging tricked-out AR-15s and creeping around like wannabe members of the Navy SEALs. The weapon used at Sandy Hook was advertised as “the ultimate combat weapons system” with the slogan: “Consider your man card reissued.”

While it will be gun companies on the stand, the unindicted co-conspirator in the Connecticut courtroom is the portion of American gun culture — and it is only a portion — that fetishizes military weaponry with little regard to the dangers of putting such deadly weapons freely into the hands of a civilian population.

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