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December 17, 2014

This critique has been updated five times, most recently on November 16, 2016.
Click here to jump to that update.

A PolitiFactoid.com Critique of...

Families of Sandy Hook victims file lawsuit against gunmaker

as reported by Don Dahler, CBS Evening News, December 15, 2014
(click here for the story at CBSNews.com, 9:29 into the video)

Last night I watched the CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley  and saw a report about a lawsuit filed by the families of some of the victims of the Newtown, Connecticut, murders in December 2012.

I wasn't planning to post a critique of that story here at PolitiFactoid.com until I read coverage of the CBS story today at NewsBusters.org. I was a bit surprised to read that NewsBusters described the CBS story as "a full segment that, surprisingly, featured CBS News correspondent Don Dahler presenting a balanced report on the issue that included him pushing back multiple times against the attorney representing the ten families."

I didn't view the CBS report that way at all. It's true that Dahler asked questions that could be interpreted as challenging, if you only look on the surface, but, to me, the CBS reporter simply gave the plaintiffs' attorney an opportunity to shoot down a couple of opposing points of view, while merely appearing to be "pushing back." See PolitiFactoid.com's critique of both the CBS report and the NewsBusters report below, which appears as dark blue, indented type, embedded in excerpts from the story.

Story intro, read by CBS News anchorman Scott Pelley:
Today, the families of nine people who were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School sued the maker of the semi-automatic rifle that was used to gun-down 20 first-graders and six educators in Newtown, Connecticut. Yesterday was the second anniversary of that awful day. Don Dahler is covering the lawsuit.

CBS News Reporter Don Dahler:
Vicky Soto died trying to shield her students from a hail of bullets fired from a Bushmaster assault rifle. Her sister Jillian blames the gun maker.

First, notice how Dahler starts off by describing a crime scene that includes a firearm, bullets, and the victims – without any mention of the actual perpetrator. In this way, he creates an image in the viewer's mind in which only the firearm and the bullets are involved in killing the victims. On whom does that image, by implication, place responsibility?

Secondly, do I even have to get into Dahler's use of the term "assault rifle?" I'm pretty sure everyone knows by now that there's no formal definition of "assault rifle" and there are no special characteristics that classify a firearm as an "assault rifle." However, gun-control advocates routinely use that term to paint guns in the worst light possible. Any particular rifle that's been used to assault someone can be accurately described as an "assault rifle," but gun detractors typically use the term to describe any semi-automatic rifle that resembles military gear, such as the Bushmaster XM-15 that was used by the Sandy Hook murderer, even when they're referring to a rifle that has never been used to assault anyone.

The people at NewsBusters apparently didn't think they needed to get into Dahler's decision to use that inflammatory term, since they ignored it. By the way, not even the gun detractors featured in this story are quoted using that term, but the reporter (Dahler) uses it three separate times.

Jillian Soto sound bite #1:
Bushmaster needs to be held accountable, to an extent, and realize that making this rifle and selling it to civilians isn't okay.

The Bushmaster Adam Lanza used is the civilian version of a military assault rifle. Josh Koskoff is the attorney representing the ten families.

Josh Koskoff sound bite #1:
It is a product that was made to kill the enemy in combat, efficiently and ferociously. There is no need for this product in our civilization, and we can't secure these weapons from people who will do us harm.

Dahler (to Koskoff):
But, it is a legal, constitutionally-protected product.

Koskoff sound bite #2:
So? That doesn't make it, uh, safe. That doesn't make it unreasonably risky.

That was Dahler's first foray into "pushing back," as described by NewsBusters. Note how Dahler's push-back is simply a statement of fact that actually has no bearing on whether Bushmaster should be held responsible. The rifle is legal and the right to keep and bear arms is constitutionally-protected – everybody knows that. I don't see how that amounts to pushing back. It merely allows the lawyer to respond with, "So?"

If Dahler were truly trying to push back, he would have asked the attorney something like, "Didn't you just describe a fully automatic, military weapon that will fire bullets continuously as long as the trigger is held down? The civilian version is not fully automatic, nor is it designed to kill the enemy ferociously in combat like the military version, is it?"

Or, Dahler could have followed-up to the attorney's response with, "Can you explain how the weapon stolen and used by Adam Lanza was not safe and how it was unreasonably risky? If, by some chance, you're able to do that, can you explain how Bushmaster is responsible for Adam Lanza stealing the weapon from his mother and using it to murder people?" Now, that would have been pushing back. Instead, Dahler included no follow-up question of any type. I'm not sure how NewsBusters can view that as "pushing back."

A 2005 federal law limits civil liability for gun manufacturers, but there are exceptions, including negligent entrustment. That means the families have to prove Bushmaster sold a weapon with full knowledge it would be used to cause injury.

Dahler is referring to the federal Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA). The law provides liability protection to the gun industry, but only when a third party has committed a crime while using a gun to harm someone. If injury results from the gun industry's own actions or negligence, the law provides no protection. And, even when the protection would otherwise apply, the law contains six exceptions under which no protection is granted. Negligent entrustment is one of those six exceptions.

Dahler (to Koskoff):
Most murders in this country occur with the use of handguns, not assault rifles. You're going after one percent of one percent of the problem in this country.

This statement by Dahler is both problematic and revealing, and it's the heart of what makes this story worthy of being debunked. The reporter injects an issue into the story completely unrelated to the lawsuit, and he appears to do so with his own anti-gun agenda. NewsBusters didn't delve into it at all. Let's look at Dahler's tactics more closely:

  1. First of all, Dahler is not asking a question. It's a premise followed by a subjective opinion, designed to get a response from the person being interviewed. Let's look at the premise, which contains an important error of fact. Dahler says, "Most murders in this country occur with the use of handguns, not assault rifles." That statistic about handguns is simply not true, which makes it a factoid. According to the FBI, in 2013, there were 12,253 murder victims in the United States. Of those victims, 5,782 were killed with handguns. That's not "most" – it's less than half. The same is true for every year since, and including, 2007. By the way, the FBI doesn't keep statistics on murders committed with "assault rifles," even though Dahler's statement might make you think they do. Anyway, a person who was murdered over the last seven years in this country was more likely to have been murdered with something other  than a handgun instead of with a handgun. For some reason, NewsBusters did not hold Dahler accountable for spouting this misinformation that defames handguns.
  2. Next we get to the subjective opinion part of Dahler's statement: "You're going after one percent of one percent of the problem in this country." With this, Dahler takes the position that there's some "problem in this country" that the lawsuit is going after. The reporter goes in this direction despite the fact that the lawsuit was filed over one, specific incident in which someone murdered people with a stolen Bushmaster rifle. Given that, what exactly is the "problem in this country" that Dahler wants us to believe the lawsuit is going after? It must be pretty big if the horror of "assault rifles" represents only one percent of one percent of the problem. Dahler never says exactly what "the problem in this country" is, but he tells us (falsely) that most murders are committed with handguns and the lawsuit is only going after one percent of one percent of the problem. What are viewers supposed to take away from that? Could the take-away be that going after gun manufacturers for "assault rifles" is too small in scope because we should obviously be going after gun manufacturers for murders committed with handguns? That's the implication, based on Dahler's phrasing.

I assume NewsBusters considers this to be another instance of Dahler "pushing back," but I just don't see it. To me, it's just a way for Dahler to appear  to be pushing back while actually inserting into his story an indictment of handguns and handgun manufacturers. And, let's not forget – Dahler proactively decided to go down this path. This issue about handguns was not part of the story until he decided to put it in the story. If that's not an example of anti-gun bias in the mainstream media, then I don't know what is.

Koskoff sound bite #3:
Well, statistics are funny sometimes, though, because if you're sitting in Jillian Soto's shoes or some of the parents' shoes, that statistic really doesn't matter. For them, it was 100 percent.

Again, if Dahler had actually been pushing back, why didn't he follow-up with a question like, "We seem to have gone off on a tangent here. Can you explain how any of this makes Bushmaster responsible for Adam Lanza stealing his mother's rifle and using it to murder her and other people at Sandy Hook Elementary School two years ago?" Instead, we don't see Dahler follow-up at all.

Soto sound bite #2:
Viki’s not a statistic. She's not just a number on a piece of paper. She’s a real person. She's my sister. She deserves to be here and she's not, and something has to change.

This statement from Soto is emotional and tugs at viewers' heartstrings. We can feel her pain. However, it has nothing to do with whether Bushmaster is responsible for Adam Lanza murdering people with a stolen Bushmaster rifle. So, why did Dahler include it in the story? All it does is build sympathy for the plaintiffs. Is that why Dahler included this quote from Jillian Soto? I can't think of any other reason.

Bushmaster told us they can't comment on pending litigation, but in recent similar lawsuits, they’ve won one and lost one. Bushmaster paid into a $2.5 million settlement in 2004 over the use of one of their rifles by the D.C. snipers, but in 2002, a federal judge ruled the gun maker was not to blame for a shooting spree that killed a postal worker. Scott?

While concluding his story, Dahler finally gives us information that helps us understand what's going on. He made it pretty clear earlier in the story that the lawsuit has a steep hurdle to overcome in order to prove that Bushmaster is guilty of anything. Now we learn that Bushmaster paid into a $2.5 million settlement in 2004 related to the murders committed by the infamous D.C. snipers.

That case created a lot of ugly publicity for Bushmaster, not because Bushmaster had done anything wrong, but mostly because of mainstream media news stories about the snipers using a Bushmaster rifle. If you're Bushmaster in this Sandy Hook lawsuit, you have to know there's almost no chance of losing the lawsuit, but you might just want to pay a settlement and make the lawsuit and its bad publicity go away, the way you did in 2004. Does anyone wonder whether the plaintiffs and their lawyer realize that Bushmaster might feel that way?

Even Dahler knows there's virtually no chance of the plaintiffs winning the case in court. One day earlier, CBS News broadcast another story by Dahler about the Sandy Hook lawsuit and the 2005 federal law that included the following comment by a legal expert: "If you can prove that the manufacturer knew in some way that the gun would end up in the hands of a proscribed purchaser – someone who shouldn't have the gun – you might be able to show liability, but it's going to be very difficult."

Therefore, we all know with a high degree of certainty that the lawsuit is merely an attempt to wrest settlement dollars from Bushmaster and/or an attempt to bring more publicity to the quest by gun haters to erode (and eventually cripple) the right to keep and bear arms in this country, at least in the court of public opinion. This story by CBS News helps make both of those things happen. (See "Updates" below.)

NewsBusters might think that the CBS story is balanced and that Dahler "pushed back," but I can't see it like that in any way, shape, or form.



UPDATE #1: (Oct 6, 2015) The two CBS News stories cited in this critique both highlighted the 2005 federal law that limits civil liability for gun manufacturers. Those stories were broadcast in December 2014. Nearly 10 months later, in the wake of the shootings at Umpqua Community College on October 1, 2015, in Roseburg, Oregon, Hillary Clinton emphatically announced her intention for that federal law to be repealed if she's elected President in 2016.

Why do I mention this? Because it illustrates one of the main methods often used by mainstream news media to push a certain agenda in order to bring about change. News outlets will focus on a particular issue that they care about (such as the 2005 law) in news stories and show how that issue negatively impacts whatever left-wing cause is being championed at the moment. In this way, public opinion can be swayed in the "correct" direction and policymakers are subtly urged to change laws or public policy in the "correct" way.

We now see that scenario playing out, in the form of Hillary Clinton publicly attacking the 2005 law and promising to get it changed in favor of the left-wing, gun-hating agenda. So, congratulations, CBS! Your efforts are starting to pay off.

UPDATE #2: (Oct 17, 2015) To learn more about how the 2005 federal law actually works, click here for a critique of subsequent story by CBS News that seems to work even harder to further the mission of destroying the federal law.

UPDATE #3: (April 15, 2016) Yesterday a Connecticut Superior Court judge named Barbara Bellis denied a motion for the lawsuit to be dismissed. The dismissal was sought by virtue of the limited immunity for gun manufacturers provided under the federal Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA). The act seeks to make gun manufacturers immune to lawsuits brought by victims of gun violence when crimes are committed with guns while the manufacturer has lawfully produced and marketed the weapon without violating firearm laws, behaving negligently, or participating in the criminal activity that resulted in harm to the victims.

This Sandy Hook lawsuit seems like a poster child for the types of lawsuits that are supposed to be dismissed under the law. However, according to the Hartford Courant, Judge Bellis ruled that "the law could be used to attack the legal sufficiency of the plaintiffs' claims but not to have the case thrown out at this early stage." Stay tuned.

UPDATE #4: (October 17, 2016) Three days ago, Judge Bellis issued a ruling to dismiss the lawsuit against the gun manufacturer and the gun shop that sold the AR-15 used in the Sandy Hook murders to Adam Lanza's mother. The case against the distributor was also dismissed. Judge Bellis ruled that the plaintiffs' claims against the defendants did not satisfy the PLCAA's exception for negligent entrustment. The plaintiffs were also suing under the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act, and the judge dismissed the suit under that law as well. (Read Judge Bellis's ruling by clicking here.)

Not to worry, though. The lead attorney for the plaintiffs told The Connecticut Post that "we will appeal this decision immediately and continue our work to help prevent the next Sandy Hook from happening." The Post did not tell us whether the lawyer will also continue to seek a whole bunch of money from the defendants while he's trying to prevent the next Sandy Hook. The Post also declined to mention how much money the defendants have been forced to spend in their own defense (so far), how much they're likely to spend for the appeal(s), and who will ultimately have to pay for all that, even if the case continues to go against the plaintiffs. (Hint: Under Connecticut law, the defense has to pay for its own legal costs, even if the court sides with the defense, according to The CT Mirror.)

One last thing. You might have read another of my critiques about how CBS News handled the 2015 jury verdict that went against a Milwaukee gun shop that was sued under the PLCAA's exception for negligent entrustment. That was about a year ago. On that occasion, The CBS Evening News broke into its regular news line-up (on the same day the verdict was issued) to bring us "breaking news" about the case, as if a verdict in a Milwaukee lawsuit against the gun industry were the most important thing in the world. CBS followed-up the next day with a segment on CBS This Morning about how important that Milwaukee case was for the efforts to "change things" about the law. (I did a complete critique of that morning-show piece, which you can find by clicking here.)

Contrast that with how CBS News is now reacting to the dismissal of the Sandy Hook lawsuit (a much-higher-profile case, and one that CBS News has been following closely). The CBS Evening News reported NOTHING about the case being dismissed, on either its October 14 or October 15 broadcast. I guess CBS didn't want to broadcast any bad news about the PLCAA. The only news about the dismissal that I could find from CBS was one brief article that appears to have been posted only on the network's web site, without having been included in its news broadcasts. If anyone finds video of CBS reporting this news on television, please leave a comment to that effect below, along with a link.

UPDATE #5: (November 16, 2016) The lead attorney for the Sandy Hook plaintiffs came through yesterday on his promise to immediately appeal the ruling by Judge Bellis last month that dismissed the lawsuit, according to the Hartford Courant. Attorneys for the plaintiffs also requested that the case be immediately sent to the Connecticut Supreme Court instead of being heard at the lower appellate court level.

In reporting the story, the Courant included a curiously silly quote from one of the plaintiffs – the father of a child killed in the December 2012 murder spree at Sandy Hook Elementary School. In reference to passage of the PLCAA in 2005, the Courant quotes the father as saying, "My son never got to exercise his right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness because, back then, Congress, the NRA, and the gun industry put profits before humanity." [1]

This rather ridiculous statement by the father blames the PLCAA for his son's death and implies that the boy would be alive and well if the 2005 law had not been enacted. Naturally, the Courant offered nothing to counterbalance this illogical and misleading comment that defames the PLCAA yet makes no sense.[2]

Remember, gun detractors want people to believe such myths about the PLCAA because it's easier to destroy the law if the public's opinion is sour. By perpetuating these narratives, the mainstream media help gun haters achieve that goal.

Check back later for more updates as this case develops.



  1. The Hartford Courant wasn't quite accurate enough to get the father's quote right. They came close, but not quite right. The Courant's web site contains video of a news conference (near the end of the story) that contains the quote. Here's what the father actually said: "My son never got to exercise his right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness because Congress, the NRA, and the gun industry, back then, put profits before humanity." For some reason, the Courant rearranged the order of some of the father's words. Not sure why they did that. In this case, the father's meaning was not changed, but the lesson is: When you read a quote in the mainstream media, never automatically assume that the reporter got it right. I've encountered this sort of erroneous behavior on a number of occasions. You never know when a reporter has changed things around when s/he is quoting someone, and that's a slippery slope. (Click here to return to the critique.)
  2. The only way the father could be correct would be for all guns and other weapons that the Sandy Hook murderer might have used, to have become unobtainable prior to the murders if not for passage of the PLCAA, i.e. if Congress had refrained from enacting the PLCAA, the murderer could not have obtained any weapons to kill people at Sandy Hook Elementary School. That's ridiculous on its face, so much so that I have to wonder why the Courant included that quote at all. The reporter and editors chose to include it – nothing forced them to. (Click here to return to the critique.)


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