The worst day of Nicole Hockley’s life was Dec. 14, 2012—when her son Dylan was found shot dead, cradled in the arms of his favorite aide, who was also dead, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Within days, Nicole co-founded Sandy Hook Promise, an organization to combat gun violence, and began lobbying for gun reform. Then, she and eight other Sandy Hook families sued Remington Arms, the maker of the AR-15-style weapon used for the Newtown massacre. Last week, they won a $73 million settlement in the case. On Tuesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Hockley about why the Sandy Hook families took a different approach to gun safety, and how they were successful in going after a gun manufacturer. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Nicole Hockley: In April 2013, when something as simple as background check legislation failed and became politicized, we took a step back and said, It’s like any problem: If you can’t solve it one way, you figure out a different way. So we went dark for a little over a year while we did a lot of research, looked into a lot of groups with gun owners and non–gun owners, and talked to a lot of educators and studied social change. That’s when we really started understanding the levers that you pull for social change: around legal levers, around education and grassroots voices, around programs and generational change and behavioral change. You need to change behaviors before you can change or enact policies to enforce and reinforce those behaviors.
It’s a long-term thing, but this is a massive problem that’s not going away. Passing background checks would not have stopped gun violence in America. You need to do all the other levers as well. So that’s when we said, Well, no one’s focusing on programs, no one’s focusing on education, so we will turn our efforts there and still advocate for change at a state and federal level. But the majority of the work that Sandy Hook Promise does is on education.
Mary Harris: What would you say to someone who might say to you that intervening with mental health is great, but in the United States, there’s the fact that there’s a gun out there for every man, woman, and child, probably more? That we have these dangerous objects scattered around the country and very accessible is a bigger problem?
I think the number of guns and the easy accessibility to them is a significant problem. However, I don’t think that’s a problem that is going to go away. There’s a huge amount of pride in gun ownership in America. I think the bigger win right now is focusing on safe storage. If everyone practiced safe storage, then we wouldn’t see the several tens of thousands of deaths by suicide, or the school shootings where the kids are bringing the guns from the home without their parents’ knowledge. If the guns are there, how do we ensure appropriate access and responsible ownership? If we get those two right, then I think you’d see the level of gun violence go down considerably.
You were looking into a pathway to legal accountability for gun manufacturers, and was told that pathway didn’t exist. That’s because these manufacturers had successfully lobbied for protection from liability if their weapons were used to commit crimes. The federal law shielding them is called the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, or PLACA for short. But the Sandy Hook families filed suit anyway, in 2015.
I had a lot of meetings with different law firms about what’s even possible here legally. When talking about the gun manufacturer itself, every law firm that I spoke to said, “You can’t touch it.”
Because of PLACA, which passed in 2005. The gun industry is the only one that is granted this blanket immunity. It’s absolutely ridiculous. Under it, I think the only cause where you could ever have a lawsuit is if the firearm doesn’t do its job—if it’s faulty, for example. But if it’s used in a mass shooting, it’s protected.
The path you did find around PLACA was through Connecticut state consumer law. The suit you ended up filing alleged that Remington knowingly used dangerous advertisements directed at young, disaffected men. Catalogs claimed their assault weapons were “for the free.” People carrying assault rifles were portrayed as classically masculine heroes. Can you lay out what these ads looked like?
There was the one with the picture of the rifle that said something like, consider your man card reissued. There’s a similar that looks like a lone shooter standing in the shadows with the firearm and says, Clear the roofs, save the kidnaped victim, powers of opposition bow down. It’s really tapping into this piece of masculinity and intimidation, and making someone more powerful because they’re using an AR-15-style rifle. There was a banner ad where it was like, if you had a friend who perhaps was not as masculine as you thought he should be or was, give them his name and email address, and they’ll presumably market the rifle to him to make him more of a man. If you are aggrieved, if you are seeking vengeance, if you are someone who has been bullied, well, you can be a man if you have an AR-15-style rifle because everyone’s going to be afraid of you. Then you see it end up in a school shooting environment.
Your suit accused Remington of violating a Connecticut law against deceptive trade practices. It went to the Connecticut Supreme Court and got appealed all the way up to the Supreme Court, and the justices had to decide if these could even move forward. Since the lawsuit was filed, Remington has actually gone bankrupt. But last week, the insurance companies that held Remington’s policies reached a settlement with you and the families. But there’s a different win here: the discovery documents that are going to be released from inside Remington’s business operations.
It was always about the documents. It’s never, ever been about the money. I have no interest whatsoever in in the settlement figure. It was all about having access to the documents. The lawyers knew what the bar was in terms of, We need to have something that’s really going to educate people and show that this was intentional, that this was incredibly well-thought-through in terms of what Remington needed to do to maintain profits and increase profits. And now, we can see it’s collated. It’s data-marked. We can present these documents and use that to show the public and create change that way. There is no proverbial smoking gun here with a memo saying we need to target violence-prone young men. That doesn’t exist. We would have never gotten that. But there’s enough now to share, to really paint that story of an actually very responsible gun manufacturer that lost its way when it was forced to focus on profits.
You’ve been pretty clear that part of the value of what just happened with this settlement was that it sets a precedent. It shows a way forward for other victims who want accountability and is also a signal to banks and insurers that gun manufacturing is a high-risk industry. I wonder how you see what happens next. Do you anticipate a flood of lawsuits like yours?
There are already lawsuits out there. So it’ll be interesting to see. We worked through a very narrow policy specific to Connecticut. Not all states have that law. But I do think it provides a way, and I also think it provides hope to others who have been hurt, who’ve heard the same arguments that I heard at the start: This is an impenetrable industry. It’s completely immune. You can’t accept that as an answer. And for insurance companies in particular, they may be revising the way they underwrite gun manufacturers so it will affect premiums and levels of coverage. I hope that that will also be used to ensure safer business practices. This is not going to put anyone out of business. This is not about stopping the manufacture of firearms. It’s about ensuring that there are safer processes and business practices in place, and more responsibility. I think this is the start of change.
Do you have a plan for making the marketing documents public in a way that people will know about?
We’re still working on the process of, how do you house all this? How does the data collection and marketing work? How do you build the story, and how do you share that out? There will be a plan, and I don’t have a timeline yet, but I’m itching to get started on that for sure.