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Families of Sandy Hook victims announce $73 million settlement with Remington

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Nearly a decade after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., nine families achieved a landmark legal victory. They've reached a $73 million settlement with the now-bankrupt gun manufacturer Remington Arms. It made the AR-15-style assault rifle the shooter used to kill 20 first-graders and six adults. Attorneys say the company's four insurers will pay the full amount. So is this at least some justice for these families?

Six-year-old Benjamin Wheeler was one of the children killed that day nearly 10 years ago. His father, David Wheeler, is on the line with us now. Thank you for joining us, David.

DAVID WHEELER: Thank you, Leila.

FADEL: David, first, I'm so sorry for your loss. I know it's been 10 years, but I'm sure the grief of a child stolen from you feels no less painful today.

WHEELER: That is largely true, yes. It's a process.

FADEL: I'm so sorry. Is this settlement what you hoped for?

WHEELER: Thank you.

FADEL: Is this justice?

WHEELER: Well, that's a difficult thing to describe. I mean, the whole point of this suit from the very beginning was to try to move the needle in the way the firearms industry operates in this country. They're the only industry that has blanket immunity that creates these lethal products and markets them and manufactures them and brings them to the market. And the whole point of this from the beginning was to try to change how that works. And I think we've done it a little bit. And for that, I'm satisfied. Yeah.

FADEL: Let's talk about that. I mean, ultimately, there are federal laws that protect gun-makers, like Remington, from litigation. But you and the other family members were able to sue based on state laws against deceptive advertising practices. What do you want people to know about how gun manufacturers operate?

WHEELER: Well, up until today - or yesterday, the gun industry has essentially been untouchable. And the insurance companies and the banking industries have been shielded from accountability in that way as well, through this kind of blanket immunity they have through the Protection of Lawful Commerce and Arms Act that was signed in 2005, commonly known as PLCAA. And it just doesn't seem right and it doesn't seem fair that you should be able to manufacture and market the most lethal consumer product we know without any checks and balances on the way you do that. There's a reasonable and a morally acceptable way to market anything. And you have to take into account the circumstances surrounding the product that you create and that you bring to the marketplace. So we're hoping that this will move things in the right direction in terms of this industry being a little bit more responsible about how they make their money and not to prioritize profits over people's lives.

FADEL: You talk about moving in the right direction. In your view, what specifically needs to change? Have some things already changed?

WHEELER: You know, it'll be a little while before we know this concretely. But the right direction for this would be for companies that make these products, as I said, to be more responsible in the way they bring them to market. When you're making the world's most lethal consumer product, it doesn't make sense to try to appeal to the sense of insecurity, or to try to appeal to promised glory or masculinity to some disaffected, young person. That just doesn't seem right. And I think that kind of approach - it's clear that that kind of approach results in the kind of tragedy that befell my family and has, you know, hurt countless others.

FADEL: This settlement, what message does it send to the gun industry, to lawmakers? What do you hope they'll take away from this?

WHEELER: I hope they'll understand that they need to be careful about how they bring these products to market. And I hope that insurance companies understand that this is no longer just an industry protected by this blanket immunity - and that you can write a policy for them, and you can collect your premiums with never any thought of any adverse reaction.

FADEL: Were there any moments when you and the other families thought you might go to trial, that you would achieve more by going to trial?

WHEELER: Well, you know, Remington has essentially gone bankrupt twice. So that adds an element of complication in the legal sense that probably couldn't be overcome in terms of trying to get to trial. But, you know, there are pluses and minuses to both, certainly.

FADEL: Your son would be 15 today if this had not happened.

WHEELER: Yeah.

FADEL: Is there any solace in this settlement?

WHEELER: Yes, in the sense that people are talking about this now. And people are thinking about this. And people are paying attention to the way the industry operates. And so in some sense, if this means that industry tactics change, and if it means that the landscape changes for the marketplace for this product, then perhaps there's some solace in knowing or thinking, or hoping, that another family will be spared this kind of tragedy and trauma and loss because another young person doesn't feel it necessary to make themselves feel like more of a man or more effective or make a mark in society by using this in the wrong way.

FADEL: Yeah. I mean, this was ultimately a combat weapon that this - the shooter used at a school.

WHEELER: Yes. It's easily described that way. And people can nitpick and argue about technical specifications about these products that make them different from what's on the battlefield. But when all is said and done, those kinds of discrepancies really are immaterial.

FADEL: This lawsuit is effectively over now. What's next for you and your family?

WHEELER: Well, we just go on, you know, one foot in front of the other.

FADEL: David Wheeler's son was killed in a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School 10 years ago. David, thank you so much for being with us.

WHEELER: Thank you for having me, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.