The Path to the Sandy Hook Settlement
S1: Nicole Hockley has had to get really comfortable talking about the worst day of her life. It’s the day her son, Dylan was found dead, cradled in the arms of his favorite school aide. She was dead to. Both were shot at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It was December 14th, 2012. Nicole calls it 12 14.
S2: I don’t know if that’s how all the families referred to it. I just know in my family that’s how we refer to it as a kind of like 911. And when people say 911, you know what they’re talking about. And I think when you say 12, 14, a lot of people know what you two or if you mentioned Newtown or Sandy Hook, people go there in their minds immediately.
S1: Part of the reason this tragedy is so well known is because of what Nicole did next. Within days, she’d co-founded an advocacy organization. She called it Sandy Hook Promise. She began lobbying for gun reform and then she sued. Specifically, she and eight other Sandy Hook families sued Remington Arms, the maker of the Air 15 style weapon used in the Newtown massacre. And just last week, they won a $73 million settlement in this case.
S3: When the Sandy Hook families came to see us, it was about nine years ago and it was in the
S1: the lawyers behind the suit and the families. They held this remarkable two hour press conference announcing the decision. They showed pictures of the victims. They talked about what their last days alive were like.
S3: It was raw. I knew enough to never tell a client, Oh yeah, we got this. No problem. And I also thought, Wow, this is going to be an enormous effort. And then I thought, How can we not try?
S1: It just wasn’t a traditional press conference to me.
S2: No, it was not. That’s rich. High.
S1: At this press conference, Nicole herself got up to speak
S2: after Dylan’s murder. I made a very early promise to do everything in my power to honor his short life by creating change that would save the lives of other children and prevent mass shootings like the one that destroyed our family. This lawsuit has been part
S1: of that promise. When I mean, I’ve watched you speak at length about being the parent of a child killed at Sandy Hook. Mm-Hmm. You’re almost always really composed, like I’ve seen the audiences weeping, and you are not
S2: it’s I am not a good model of self-care and I personally don’t like breaking down in public. So I kind of had this sort of mantra in my head that if I’m crying, you’re just focused on my emotion and heartbreak and you’re not focused on my message. And it’s funny in the in the room before the press conference, some others were crying. We were handing out tissues and Allen handed me the box and I’m like, I’m OK. I never cry in public. And and I I think I burst into tears three times during the press conference because this is just such it’s it’s too emotional and even my armor is, you know, it can’t always stay on.
S1: Yeah. Why do you think it was the settlement that. Broke you,
S2: that was the first time that a lot of families had been in one room together. You know, this isn’t a normal occurrence for us. I think also, you know, this is in one aspect to the end of an eight year journey and the beginning of what comes next. So I think there’s just this huge like relief because everyone said that we would never get this far. And also just thinking about, you know, it’s working, still have a long way to go. But for nine years, I’ve listened to people say what you’re doing is not possible and thank God I don’t listen to them
S1: today on the show. By the Sandy Hook, families took a different approach to gun reform. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. Can I take you back, like way back to right after the shooting because it was it was notable to me that you became politically active right away. You had a press conference a month after the shooting. And I don’t I can’t imagine how hard that must have been.
S2: I think it’s just part of my DNA that I have always been this way. If something needs to happen, I jump in both feet first and I focus on change. I’m active in that way and it’s, you know, 24 hours after the shooting. Even that weekend, I was nonfunctional, completely non-functional. Not verbal. Not not anything. And. And I guess I feel like if I have the ability to use my voice to create change and I know others either don’t have the ability or don’t have the platform to raise their voice, then I have a bigger responsibility to do this for. For anyone who can’t do it, so it’s it’s not a thing of strength. I’ve heard people say, you know, you’re strong and I’m like, No, I’m not. I’m just this is this is my DNA. This is who I am. I have to I have to be active. I can’t let this just be forgotten.
S1: Nicole had a powerful ally in the White House. Then President Obama had decided to make gun control legislation a priority. That’s how Nicole and other Sandy Hook parents found themselves traveling to D.C. just weeks after their children’s deaths to advocate for expanded background checks for gun purchases.
S2: That was the first time I’d ever been to D.C.. Oh wow. And and I got to know the halls of Congress fairly intimately, and I remember I used to kind of run my fingers along the wall as I’d be walking because it was so surreal how different life had changed so quickly. And I wasn’t quite sure if this was like reality or some horrible nightmare I couldn’t wake from. But some people might feel, Oh my gosh, you’re talking to a U.S. senator. I just saw another dad, another mom in front of me, and that’s the same way, you know, talking with President Obama and then Vice President Biden. These were parents. It wasn’t the president. It wasn’t the vice president. It was just a dad who couldn’t imagine what it would be like if he was in my shoes.
S1: You said that some senators wept when
S2: they yelled, Gosh, yeah, there were quite a few senators that that cried in front of us, and we sometimes cried as well. But more often than not, they became more emotional, and I think I lost faith in some people who became emotional promise to do whatever they could and then still voted no. You know, I almost preferred the senators who are almost a little bit more in my face and a little bit negative about. I’m not going to sign for this, no matter what you know, and this isn’t going to give you closure and you need to move on because at least they were very they were honest. Exactly. I’d prefer that authenticity rather than someone who weeps and then goes against me. And I think that was for Mia, an unfortunate baptism in what politics really is.
S1: You want to name names here.
S2: I never name names, I’m sorry I did. It’s just not my way.
S1: When was it clear that the background check legislation was not going to pass?
S2: You know, it was it wasn’t clear to me until that we were actually doing the votes in the chamber. You know, we made it through cloture. I didn’t even know what cloture was until that. Were you there? I was there. Oh yeah, I was. I was up in the gallery and trying to, you know, trying to count the votes on my hands because you’re not allowed to bring any cell phones or anything in and watching the, you know, the yays and the nays mount up and totally losing track. And then when when Vice President Biden said
S3: the amendment is not agreed to,
S2: there was just this huge amount of deflation looking down at the senators, some of them who could not look up at us, some who rather looked up at us a little bit defiantly if I’m totally honest. And then hearing one of the other survivors from another shooting yell out,
S3: help be order in the Senate.
S2: It was a horrible moment. And then going back into the Oval Office with a, you know, a very angry President Obama before we then went out to the Rose Garden to speak. And, you know, when he talked about, this is a shameful day in our history and I completely agree with him.
S3: But the fact is, most of these senators could not offer any good reason why we wouldn’t want to make it harder for criminals and those with severe mental illnesses to buy a gun. There were no coherent arguments as to why we wouldn’t do this. It came down to politics.
S1: I wonder how that political experience, which I mean, you’ve called it soul crushing. Hmm. I wonder how it shaped the direction of your organization, Sandy Hook promise, because you already formed the group. Mm hmm. But in the months and years since, it’s been notable to me that you’ve been remarkably nonpartisan as a as a gun safety group goes. Mm hmm.
S2: You know, it failed in April 2013 and when when something as simple as a background check failed and became, you know, political, we took a step back and said, I mean, it’s like any problem. If you can’t solve it one way, you figure out a different way. So we kind of went dark for a little over a year while we did a lot of research, a lot of groups with gun owners and non gun owners, and we talked to a lot of educators and we really studied social change. How do you, you know, everything from civil rights up to marriage equality? How do you take a partisan issue and find the common ground? And that’s when we really started understanding the levers that you pull in social change around legal levers, around education and grassroots voice, around programs and generational change and behavioral change, and that you need to change behaviors before you can change or enact policies to enforce and reinforce those behaviors
S1: that seem so much harder to me.
S2: Oh, it’s long term. It’s a long term thing, but this is a massive problem that’s not going away, so you’re not going to be 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 we still advocate for change at a state and federal level. But the majority of the work that Sandy Hook promise does is on education.
S1: It’s interesting to hear you say that if you’d passed background checks, you don’t actually think that would have done much because you spent so much time advocating for it. And I feel like there’s a lot invested in that effort. It’s pretty remarkable to me.
S2: I don’t. I’m not saying it wouldn’t have done much it. It would have done a lot. What I said was it would not solve the issue of gun violence in our country. This is a complex and multifaceted issue and requires a lot of things having background checks, which certainly ensure more responsibility in terms of who can access the gun and buy a firearm legally. But it’s it’s it’s something that wouldn’t have solved on its own. The issue of gun violence in America, although I think if it had passed, a lot of people would have just kind of, you know, clapped their hands and said, That’s it. We did it. Let’s move on to something else, whereas there’s so much more change that’s needed to create a safer environment.
S1: What would you say to someone who might say to you? Intervening with mental health is great. Background checks are great. But in the United States, there’s this bigger problem of the fact that there’s a gun out there for every man, woman and child who lives here, probably more. And in the end, the fact that we have these. Dangerous objects scattered around the country and very accessible. That’s the bigger problem,
S2: I think the 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 and gun ownership in America. Obviously, the Second Amendment provides a lot of protections, and that is a challenge not to take on right now in terms of, I think the bigger win right now is focusing on safe storage. You know, for all those in, you’re right, it is more guns out there than people. But if everyone practiced safe storage, then we wouldn’t see, you know, the tens of several 10000 deaths by suicide because or the school shootings where the kids are bringing the guns from the home without their parents knowledge. So I think you’re prioritizing. Yeah, you got to prioritize. If the guns are there, that’s not going to change. So how do we ensure appropriate access and responsible ownership? And if we get those two right, then I think you’d see the level of gun violence go down considerably.
S1: When we come back and Nicole and eight other Sandy Hook families went after a gun manufacturer and one. Even while she was pushing for legislative change in Washington and then education and mental health support for kids, Nicole Hockley was investigating other actions she could take. Pathways to legal accountability. She kept being told the same thing. Those kind of pathways don’t exist. That’s because gun manufacturers had successfully lobbied for protection from liability if their weapons were used to commit crimes. The federal law shielding them. It’s called the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, or Plaka for short. The Sandy Hook families filed suit anyway. They claimed that Remington, the manufacturer of the rifle that killed their children, was sold using deceptive ad practices. It ended up getting appealed all the way to the Supreme Court.
S2: I had a lot of meetings with different law firms about, you know, what’s even possible here legally, and it wasn’t necessarily absolutely targeting gun manufacturers, which is like, what’s possible here? I didn’t want to attack the school, which some people did, and that’s their choice. It’s not my choice. But when talking about. The gun manufacturer itself, every law firm that I spoke to said, you can’t touch them. Why? Because of Placa, because of the the the federal law passed in 2005, which grants gun manufacturers immunity from against lawsuits of exactly this nature. They are the only industry that is granted this blanket immunity. It’s absolutely ridiculous.
S1: This protection was so broad that like your lawyer who you eventually went with, you kind of laughed about it. At the press conference, he basically implied he was naive for taking the case on.
S2: He was totally he was the he was the only one. He’s like, This is a righteous case. He said, We have to. We have to do this. I assumed that Josh knew that this was a problem, and it’s only recently that I discovered that, yeah, he he wanted to do the right thing, but had no idea what he was he was stepping into. But, you know, good on him that and his amazing team for staying with it and saying there has to be a way.
S1: The path around Placa was through Connecticut State Consumer Law. The suit that ended up being filed alleged Remington knowingly used dangerous advertisements and directed them at young, disaffected men. Their catalogs claimed their assault weapons were, quote unquote, for the free. People carrying their weapons were portrayed as classically masculine heroes. Can you lay out what these ads looked like?
S2: Yeah, there’s there are some really interesting sales ads that they’ve used. Certainly the one about, you know, the picture of the AR 15 with, you know, consider your man card reissued a similar one, which looks like a lone shooter standing in the shadows with the firearm and talking about, you know, clear the clear the roof’s save the save the kidnapped victim, you know, it’s all about or the one that says powers of opposition bow down. You know, it’s really tapping into this piece of masculinity and intimidation and creating someone more powerful because they’re having an AR 15. And I think that’s where you’re targeting men, insecure young men who are trying to appear more manly by having an AR 15. So 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 because everyone’s going to be afraid of you, then, and that’s why it ends up in a school shooting environment.
S1: The suit accused Remington of violating a Connecticut law against deceptive trade practices, and it got appealed all the way up to the Supreme Court, and the justices had to decide, like, can this even move forward? Right?
S2: Mm hmm. Yeah.
S1: Was there ever a moment where you just thought I’ve invested so much in this and I’m just not sure anything’s going to come of it?
S2: There were there were several moments, I think certainly first going to the Connecticut Supreme Court, that was that was an experience and listening to the arguments there. And then and then when Remington took it to the U.S. Supreme Court, I will fully admit that there was a moment that I thought There, that’s it. We’re done.
S1: What was it about the arguments they were making that made you think that
S2: listening to Remington defense counsel and how they were saying that we had to establish a direct link that showed that the Sandy Hook shooter saw these ads in there and purchased the AR 15 as a direct result of those ads, which I don’t think that there is, you know, I’ve worked in marketing my entire life, and I don’t think that there’s really any research that shows an exact ad always leads to an exact outcome. It’s more about how many times you see it and brand awareness in the way it builds up over time. So it would have been it would have been an uphill battle. But I think, you know, there’s a lot of marketing experts, I think there that could have supported us. But when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case, I thought, Oh my gosh, there’s nowhere else for Remington to go. This is going to happen now
S1: since this lawsuit was filed. Remington has actually gone bankrupt. But last week, the insurance companies that held their policies reached this settlement with Nicole and the other eight families. They’re paying $73 million. But for Nicole, the real win is the discovery documents that are going to be released from inside Remington business operations.
S2: It was always about the documents. It’s never, ever been about the money. I no interest whatsoever in in the settlement figure. It was all about having access to the documents. And again, it’s that trust in the lawyers because, you know, they know 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, you know, incredibly well thought through in terms of what they needed to do to maintain profits and increase profits. And the lawyers have really said, OK, this is you’ve got enough here. You know, we can see it. It’s collated, it’s data marked. We can we can present this and use that to show the public and create change that way. So until we had enough to show that it, there was no money in the world that was going to make this lawsuit settle.
S1: 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, I think, the way you put it at the press conference to the banks and the insurers that this is a high risk industry. I wonder. How you see what happens next? Like, do you anticipate? A flood of lawsuits like yours.
S2: There are already lawsuits out there. So it’ll be interesting to see in some of this, you know, we we worked through a very narrow policy specific to Connecticut, other states. Not all states have that law. Others are putting it in, such as New York and California. So I think it provides a way, but I also think it provides hope to others who have been hurt. You know, who have heard the same arguments that I heard at the start about. This is an impenetrable industry. They are completely immune and it’s like, No, you just can’t accept no as an answer, if that’s what you want to do is find a different way. And for the insurance companies in particular, now insurance companies may be revising the way they underwrite gun manufacturers so it will affect premiums, it will affect levels of coverage. And 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 because gun manufacturers are not immune. So I think this is the start of change. In the same way, Big Tobacco had to change a lot of their marketing materials and practices as well.
S1: Do you have a plan for making the marketing documents public in a way that people will know about?
S2: There will be a plan. I don’t have a plan right now. And we’re still working on the process of how do you house all this? How does the data collection and marketing work? And then how do you build the story and how do you share that out? So I don’t have an exact plan yet. I am a marketing person, so there will be a plan and I don’t have a timeline yet, but I am, you know, I’m itching to get started on that. That’s that’s for sure.
S1: Nicole Hockley, thank you so much for coming on the show. I really appreciate
S2: it. Thank you so much. Appreciate the time.
S1: Nicole Hockley is the co-founder and the CEO of Sandy Hook Promise. And that’s our show. What next is produced by Carmel Delshad Mary Wilson, Alena Schwartz and Danielle Hewitt. We’re led by Alicia Montgomery and I’m Mary Harris. You can go track me down on Twitter about Mary’s desk. Thanks for listening. I’ll catch you back here tomorrow.