Remington, one of the most famous names in weapon manufacture, were ordered to pay $73M compensation to the victims of the Sandy Hook massacre in a decision announced on Tuesday, Feb. 15. The case has run for a long long time, and the victory was achieved despite legislation designed to protect gun makers in these situations, and with the help of a popular first person shooter.
Like many cases, the Sandy Hook massacre saw comparisons drawn with virtual violence in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy. Young men who spent hours a day shooting pixels out of pixels at other pixels are often discussed in the wake of these events, going back at least as far as Columbine. This time, however, it was a video game that eventually saw Remington held to account, and the families of the victims receive a degree of justice to compensate for the incredible loss they had experienced at the hands of a killer wielding Remington’s popular "Bushmaster", the AR-15 like weapon that was used that day.
A "checkmate" moment
You see, in America, there are laws put in place to protect the makers of weapons if said weapons are used in crimes, like school shootings the rules made it very difficult for the victims of the case to prove Remington were in any way liable for the acts of violence.
However, the lawyers for the families of the victims realized that they could hold Remington accountable for their marketing of the weapon. If they could prove the company had marketed the Bushmaster to people like Sandy Hook murderer Adam Lanza, then Remington would be liable for the crimes committed by the then-20-year-old, who used a Bushmaster gun identical to the one he used every day while playing Call of Duty (CoD).
The turning point for the case came with a single photo, seen by lawyer Josh Koskoff, which showed a pair of "taped mags" on the floor of a classroom. Many of us would have been paralyzed by the horrific imagery of such items next to the leg of a child’s desk, but Koskoff’s mind immediately went to a sight he’d seen while playing CoD himself, of the same items taped in the same way, for the same reason (faster reloads), and knew he had his "checkmate moment" as he calls it.
A company doesn’t have to directly contact a consumer to advertise to them, and Koskoff knew what he had was enough for justice to be done. Quoted in the New York Times, he said of the moment that, “Once I saw that in that first-grade classroom, that was it for me,” Koskoff said last week. “Remington may not have known him, but they’d been courting him for years.”
As a result of the photos, the victims' families were able to hold the manufacturer of the gun accountable and secure a court ruling in their favor. The purchase of Remington by Cerberus Capital Management had seen sales of the Bushmaster rapidly increase thanks to a new, aggressive marketing campaign which included the gun being included in CoD, unsurprisingly aimed at "couch commandos".
From the same New York Times article comes this quote from Koskoff, outlining the ways Remington's marketing was so effective in reaching the eventual killer. “The gun conglomerate formed by Cerberus blew through two very well-established lines by targeting younger users who could not be lawful purchasers, and people who presented an increased risk to public safety,” Koskoff said. “They never asked, ‘How can we market this weapon in a way that reduces the risk of dangerous use?’ It appears from all the evidence that they did the opposite.”
Today, Remington is gone, with the $73M compensation they owe to the families of the victims to be paid by four insurance companies, but the case could be a landmark for publishers looking to create new games, and gun manufacturers trying to decide how to market their products. The idea that having virtual versions of real-life weapons in games is just for ‘realism’ was roundly rejected by the judge in this case, which means future suits could also classify placement of real-life guns in games as marketing, leaving gun companies liable in similar cases.
All the quotes in this article come from the excellent feature in the New York Times, written by Elizabeth Williamson, and we urge you to head over and read their feature on the case too.