Adam Lanza, just 20 years old, shot his mother as she slept in bed, stole her assault rifle and walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012. There, he systematically killed 20 young children and six members of the staff. His weapon of choice was a Bushmaster version of the popular AR-15 rifle, whose iconic silhouette was first made famous in military combat.
Almost a decade later, nine families of victims from Sandy Hook won a milestone legal settlement of $73 million by the manufacturer of that rifle, Remington Arms. It’s the biggest payout in a mass-shooting lawsuit against a gun maker thus far.
Since the 2012 massacre, these families had been navigating a legal labyrinth in the hopes of finding some way, any way, to hold gun makers accountable for their part in marketing violent tools and ideologies to impressionable young men. Against all odds — and with the use of a novel legal tactic available in Connecticut, where the shooting took place — they’ve found a semblance of recourse.
It’s unlikely that this strategy can be replicated across the country, or even for the vast majority of mass shootings. But it’s a tantalizing blueprint for those who want restrictions on guns, and maybe most importantly, the case sheds light on a gun culture driven by fantasies of male empowerment through fatal power, and sold by advertisements that emphasize this again and again.
In 2005, Congress voted into law a policy seemingly designed to permanently limit gun manufacturers’ liability when their weapons were used in crimes. The unprecedented Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act more or less barred civil lawsuits against these companies, with a small exception made for sales and marketing practices that violate state or federal law. Coincidentally, Connecticut law features the Unfair Trade Practices Act, an unusual policy that allows consumers to challenge companies that shill irresponsible and unethical marketing practices. After realizing this stroke of legal luck, the nine families from Sandy Hook, along with their counsel, began to dig into Remington’s history of advertising to young men.
What they discovered was a slew of material that seemed primed for disaffected men seeking agency for themselves. Full-page catalog ads depicted Bushmaster rifles next to phrases like “Clear the Room,” “Control Your Destiny” and “Forces of Opposition, Bow Down.” There were comparisons to military warfare everywhere, from the tactical look of the firearms to the tough helmeted men carrying them in photos. The AR-15-style rifle that Lanza used, meanwhile, was sold in advertisements that claimed owning one would give you your “man card” back. “In a world of rapidly depleting testosterone, the Bushmaster Man Card declares and confirms that you are a man’s man,” the advert crowed.
The legal team found these advertisements in men’s magazines and hobbyist pages, but also on much more mainstream online gaming forums and sites trafficked by young men who play militaristic games like Call of Duty. That included Lanza himself, who reportedly played the first-person shooter obsessively.
That connection became clearer to the legal team after the discovery of a unique accessory that Lanza had dropped on the ground during his killing spree. He had modified two rifle magazines, duct taping them together side-by-side — a modification for faster reloading explicitly inspired by military use. These “jungle-style” magazines are depicted in Call of Duty as a helpful accessory for faster shooting, and it was the “checkmate moment” for lawyer Josh Kosoff. “Once I saw that in that first-grade classroom, that was it for me,” Koskoff told the New York Times last week. “Remington may not have known him, but they’d been courting him for years.”
The conclusion of the lawsuit, launched in 2014, means that the plaintiffs also have access to a treasure trove of internal Remington documents that illuminate how the company markets its wares and how its sales agenda shifted over the years. Lawyers found, for instance, that sales of AR-15-type rifles had exploded from 2005 through 2012, during a time period when Remington had been restructured with the acquisition of several other smaller gun manufacturers (including Bushmaster) under new private-equity leadership. It coincided with a new marketing push that stripped away the dry, feature-focused adverts of the past and leaned on a culture-war mentality — one that depicted gun owners as the front line in a shifting, ever-dangerous society.
In a way, this is just the logical conclusion of a gun industry that was borne from the Industrial Revolution and never saw much in the way of moral reservations or legal restrictions around selling firearms. Even in the mid-19th century, manufacturers like Remington, Colt and Winchester launched ad campaigns that were aimed at white men who had growing anxieties about the shifting landscape around them. Samuel Colt himself may have been inspired to pursue gun manufacturing in part because of these anxieties; Washington Post writer Tracy L. Barnett notes that, as depicted in an 1838 endorsement, Colt was startled by Nat Turner’s Revolt in 1831 and began to consider the “fearful odds” with which white plantation owners could be “surrounded by a swarming population of slaves.”
So it may be obvious that the history of gun marketing has always been tied to the anxieties of men, but it presents a chicken-or-egg proposition in 2022. What came first: The rise of a class of aggrieved, deeply lonesome (and disproportionately white) young men who see a blaze of fatal violence as the legacy they wish to leave behind? Or an online culture seemingly built to give these young men a sense of radical purpose by stroking their most toxic, masturbatory thoughts about the failures of the world around them?
For now, we’re left with a lasting dilemma, even despite the landmark settlement that Remington must pay up. As part of the legal negotiation, the company hasn’t admitted any wrongdoing, and again, it’s unclear whether the strategy used by Kosoff and the Sandy Hook parents is applicable to other victims given that a majority of states lack the consumer marketing law that made this lawsuit even possible.
Moreover, nothing about this narrative helps us understand what differentiates Lanza, and other angry young shooters, from the millions of young men who are exposed to first-person shooters and gun advertisements and don’t seek to become lone-wolf killers. It reminds me of how bluntly Nicole Hockley, the parent of a Sandy Hook victim and a gun-policy advocate, observes the status quo. “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,” she told Slate. “You need to do all the other levers as well.”
As Hockley notes, while it’s remarkable that Congress failed to pass universal background checks, it also remains unclear if that would’ve stopped someone like Lanza, who procured his rifle from his own mother. And though it’s exceedingly easy for an adult to buy and modify high-powered rifles that would be the envy of Special Forces operators; it also remains unclear if banning so-called “assault weapons” would curtail the vast majority of gun violence in America.
So much is still so unclear because we haven’t been given access to unpack this world. A thicket of gun manufacturers, industry lobbyists and political allies have made it nearly impossible to do so, banning studies on the consequences of gun access, passing laws that limit liability and spending billions to promote a myth of safe gun ownership in the U.S.
Remington is far from the only company that has, in some way or another, stood complicit in the killing of innocent people. It’s undeniable that it’s fueled culture-war bravado and toxic, one-dimensional ideas of masculinity. But its advertising, like the existence of militaristic games like Call of Duty, are just individual seams in an American tapestry of violence — one that never seems to stop growing.
With any luck, the novel legal tactics of the Sandy Hook parents can help shift the ethics of marketing and selling guns. It’s hard to wait for piecemeal change in this way. But a $73 million settlement is a sign of hope, and a lever worth pulling while we keep looking for more.