Ronn Torossian
Ronn Torossian

Every time a mass shooting occurs in the United States, especially a school-related shooting, at some point in the aftermath, someone points the finger at gun manufacturers and says these companies bear some culpability for what people do with their products.

Until recently, those accusations didn’t have much in the way of legal teeth. That’s changed. The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled recently that gun maker Remington “can be sued over how it marketed the Bushmaster rifle,” which was used to murder 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

This decision overturned a lower court ruling that said the company was protected by legal precedent, most recently a law that came down in 2005 specifically protecting gun manufacturers from prosecution if their products are used to commit crimes.

Consumer PR messaging

The key PR-related factor here is that the decision was made based not on what was done with the rifle in question, but how that rifle and its value were communicated to the consumer public. According to the plaintiffs in the case, the Bushmaster was marketed to young people as a “glorified” weapon, something cool that would instill a sense of pride and adventure.

This aspect of the legal argument is key, because the high court dismissed just about every aspect of the complaint in this case except for the issue of the messaging surrounding the marketing of this product. The majority side in this decision did not mince words. Justice Richard Palmer said: “The regulation of advertising that threatens the public’s health, safety, and morals has long been considered a core exercise of the states’ police powers …”

But the plaintiffs took the argument even further, dissecting the messaging and using it to argue for the intent of the manufacturer in this case. Joshua Koskoff told the court that “Remington (had a) calculated and profit-driven strategy to expand the AR-15 market and court high-risk users, all at the expense of Americans’ safety …”

The argument, then, is that Remington’s marketing strategy and consumer PR messaging amounted to a callous and intentional disregard for the safety and security of the consumer public. We’re not here to affirm or deny that statement, but we do need to point out that the court in this case agreed with that assertion, at least to a point.

The brand in question was found guilty because of its messaging and its marketing, not because of what was done with the product. This is an interesting and, for many, a troubling precedent. Brands that make and market dangerous products for recreational use should pay very close attention and, perhaps, reconsider the content of their messaging.

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Ronn Torossian is CEO of 5WPR, a leading PR agency.