Opinion: How a 2000 Colorado law that protects gun makers set the stage for a Texas school massacre

Gun Rights

Our daughter was raised in Texas and murdered in Aurora, by a 24-year-old deranged killer who leaked to his current psychiatrist that he had thought of killing people since he was 8. Even with that history, he was able to perpetrate another horrific rampage, a killing that eclipsed the Columbine shooting and again put Colorado on the world stage.  

Some months after the shooting at Columbine High School, a Republican-controlled General Assembly killed a bill meant to close the gun-show loophole. This caused a backlash from grassroots gun safety organizations that galvanized Colorado voters, and they passed Proposition 22 by a 70-30 margin to close the gun show loophole.  

Six months before that landslide vote, Colorado’s rough-and-tumble world of NRA-dominated, gun-culture politics produced a retaliatory reaction that prompted the Republican legislature to pass, in May 2000, the mother of all firearm industry immunity laws.The passage of the Limitations on Civil Actions Regarding Firearms Act slammed the courtroom door to all survivors of gun violence — until we sued Lucky Gunner, LLC, for negligent entrustment in September 2014.

We didn’t ask for money. We asked the court to require Lucky Gunner to change its business practices.

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Lucky Gunner’s attorneys took almost six months to prepare a motion to dismiss. In March 2015, Judge Richard Matsch ruled on the motion. “The only exceptions to the broad immunity granted to ammunition dealers are a product liability action and an action in tort for ‘damages’ caused by the violation of a state or federal statute,” he wrote.

“The second exception is not applicable because the Plaintiffs are not seeking ‘damages.’ The Colorado legislature specifically limited suits against ammunition sellers to those where the plaintiff requests ‘damages’ for relief. The plaintiffs’ negligent entrustment claims are barred and ‘must’ be dismissed.”

Only in the upside-down world of the Colorado General Assembly can a law be passed that denies the victims of gun violence the right to seek justice through the legal system by blocking a lawsuit because we didn’t ask for “damages.” In any other world, the opposite would be true.

Adding insult to injury, the defendants’ attorneys claimed $263,000 in fees and costs. In an amazing show of mercy, Judge Matsch reduced their claim to $203,000 — not enough of a reduction to keep us out of bankruptcy.

The judge not only reduced the opposing attorney’s fees, but he chastised the Brady Center for involving their employees in an extremely long-shot lawsuit under Colorado’s fee-switching law when he wrote in his order, “The mandatory word ‘shall’, in those statutes require that fees be awarded. It may be presumed that whatever hardship is imposed on the individual plaintiffs by these awards against them may be ameliorated by the sponsors of this action in their name.”

He had no way of knowing that the Brady Center unceremoniously handed us separation agreements on Dec. 14, 2014 — 86 days after the Brady Center filed the lawsuit.

On Jan. 27, 2017, one year and seven months after the judge’s order, we had to file for bankruptcy after exhausting our savings while waiting for the Brady Center to do what Judge Matsch had presumed they would do.

Six years after Colorado’s liability-limiting law put us into bankruptcy, Lucky Gunner’s luck ran out. Attorneys announced last month that the survivors and families of the victims of a mass shooting at Santa Fe High School in Texas settled a lawsuit with LuckyGunner.com.

Families of the victims alleged in court that Lucky Gunner had acted negligently and violated the federal Youth Handgun Safety Act when it sold handgun ammunition to the 17-year-old shooter. As a condition of the settlement, Lucky Gunner must maintain an age verification for all ammunition sales, and the families could not disclose if money was involved.

It is not a challenging stretch to believe Colorado’s 2000 law inadvertently caused the death of eight students and two teachers in Santa Fe, Texas.

The Colorado General Assembly has recently introduced a bill called the Gun Violence Victims’ Access to Justice and Firearms Industry Accountability Act. If this act had been in place when we filed our negligent entrustment lawsuit, it would have forced Lucky Gunner to follow current law, saved them millions in attorney’s fees, and stopped another horrific public mass shooting.

The people of Colorado and America have had enough of the gun industry endangering their families’ lives because they have a special immunity from civil lawsuits that no other industry enjoys.

Lonnie Phillips’ U.S. residence is in Boerne, Texas. He and his wife, Sandy, traveled in an RV for eight years following the Aurora shooting trial, and now are living in Ajijic, Mexico.

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