Uvalde families dig in for new test of gun industry protections

FILE - Abel Lopez, right, father of Xavier Lopez who was killed in the shootings in Uvalde, Texas, holds a banner honoring the victims after a Texas House committee voted to take up a bill to limit the age for purchasing AR-15 style weapons in the full House in Austin, Texas, Monday, May 8, 2023. Families in Uvalde, Texas, are digging in for a new test of legal protections for the gun industry as they mark one year since the Robb Elementary School shooting. Both the U.S. government and gun manufacturers in recent years have reached large settlements following some of the nation's worst mass shootings. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)
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Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — After Mayah Zamora was shot and wounded at Robb Elementary School, her family did what many mass shooting survivors do: They sued.

They sued the store off Main Street in Uvalde, Texas, that sold the teenage gunman his AR-style rifle. They sued the gun maker. And they sued police who waited 77 minutes outside Mayah’s fourth-grade classroom before stopping the shooting that killed 19 children and two teachers.

“Mainly what we are looking for is some sort of justice,” said Christina Zamora, Mayah’s mother.

As the grim frequency of gun violence continues, both the U.S. government and gun manufacturers have reached large settlements in recent years following some of the nation’s worst mass shootings. In April, the Justice Department announced a $144 million settlement with relatives and families of a 2017 Texas church attack, which was carried out by a former U.S. airman with a criminal history.

The lawsuits, relatives and victims of mass shootings say, are an effort to get accountability and prevent more attacks — by forcing reforms, hurting the gun industry’s bottom line and strengthening background checks after lapses failed to stop gunmen from buying weapons.

But despite two high-profile settlements in the last year involving gun manufacturers, and Democrat-led states rolling back some industry protections, not only do high hurdles remain for lawsuits to succeed, but in some places the hurdles are growing taller.

On May 11, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed a new law that further shields gun manufacturers from lawsuits, weeks after a shooter at a Nashville school killed six people.

It comes as attorneys say the narrow path for victims to bring lawsuits has begun to widen, including for families in Uvalde, who on Wednesday will mark the one year since the most deadly school shooting in Texas history.

“I think there are more opportunities for accountability than maybe there were five to 10 years ago,” said Eric Tirschwell, executive director for Everytown for Gun Safety, which for years has brought lawsuits against the gun industry and is also involved in the Uvalde case.

The track record for lawsuits following mass shootings is mixed. The gun industry remains largely protected from liability under a federal law, known as the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, though it does not completely exempt or immunize gun manufacturers from lawsuits.

Over the last decade, courts have tossed numerous lawsuits, many of which did not target the gun industry but instead brought negligence claims against the government or the places where the attacks took place. In 2020, the casino company MGM Resorts International and its insurers agreed to an $800 million settlement over a shooting on the Las Vegas Strip that killed 58 people and injured hundreds more.

Last year, the maker of the rifle used in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary shooting settled with families for $73 million over a lawsuit that accused Remington of targeting younger, at-risk males in marketing. In Tennessee, the GOP sponsor of the state’s new law waved to what happened in Connecticut in defending the need to further shield the industry: “Few companies can survive a $73 million settlement,” state Rep. Monty Fritts said in February.

In Uvalde, victims have also accused Daniel Defense, the maker of the weapon used in the attack, of dangerous marketing. The company has denied that in court, and gun industry groups have broadly rejected the argument since the Sandy Hook settlement.

“The commercial speech is still protected speech,” said Mark Oliva, managing director for public affairs at the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

The lawsuits in Uvalde are still in the early stages and not all families sued. For the Zamoras, they decided to join only after Mayah was released from the hospital, which was not until more than two months after the shooting and dozens of surgeries. Next year, her parents say, they hope she can return to school in person.

After the Uvalde shooting, Sandy and Lonnie Phillips drove to the town and shared with families their own experiences of suing the gun industry: a decision that ended with them declaring bankruptcy after losing and a court ordering them to pay more than $200,000 to the defendants’ attorneys.

Their daughter, Jessica, was killed in the 2012 movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado. Last month, the couple joined Colorado Gov. Jared Polis as the Democrat signed laws aimed at making it easier to sue the gun industry, one of which prevents plaintiffs from having to pay if their lawsuits are dismissed.

“They’re not aware of what’s coming down the pike,” Lonnie Phillips said of victims who bring lawsuits. “They only know that they lost their child and somebody has to pay.”