Seven people were killed and 48 others injured in the Highland Park parade shooting—and Liz Turnipseed was one of them. Turnipseed, 40, was standing next to her husband and three-year-old daughter when a bullet struck the right side of her pelvis during the Illinois city’s annual Independence Day cavalcade. Her husband grabbed her child, ran away from the crowd, and handed her to someone else crouching behind a metal-and-concrete bench. He then ran back, through the carnage, for Turnipseed.
After months of wound care management, six doctor appointments per week, and immeasurable emotional suffering, Turnipseed is suing Smith & Wesson. Her complaint —filed Wednesday on Turnipseed’s behalf by Edelson PC, the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, and Dentons—alleges that Smith & Wesson used deceptive tactics to advertise their M & P15 rifle, a semiautomatic rifle the suit says was used in the Highland Park shooting; it was also used in the Parkland, San Bernardino, Poway, and Aurora mass shootings. And while Turnipseed is not the first person to attempt to hold the firearm industry accountable for a mass shooting amid America’s growing epidemic of gun violence, her suit could be the first of its kind to be heard by a jury since the passage of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), a 2005 law that grants gun manufacturers sweeping legal immunity from civil litigation.
“There’s going to be so many more mass shootings, unfortunately, and the legal work and the groundwork that we can lay here is going to be immediately applicable to every other case that comes up in the future,” said Ari Scharg, a partner at Edelson PC. “[A gun-related case will] go up to the Supreme Court at some point.”
Following the Newtown massacre, the Connecticut Supreme Court forged a new path for taking on the gun industry, accepting the argument that gun manufacturer Remington could be sued over violation of applicable consumer-protection laws in the state of Connecticut; Turnipseed’s suit alleges violation of an Illinois consumer-fraud law.
Turnipseed joins a burgeoning coalition of plaintiffs who have sought to crack down on the industry’s dubious advertising in recent years. Victims of the Poway synagogue shooting reached a settlement this August with the parents of the shooter, while their case against Smith & Wesson, over its advertising, remains underway. Families of victims in the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting similarly sued gun manufacturer Remington for its marketing tactics; Remington settled, with the company’s insurers reportedly agreeing to pay the plaintiffs $73 million in February. Meanwhile, the state of New Jersey is seeking internal documents on how Smith & Wesson markets its products, and is currently steeped in a back-and-forth court battle around whether such information can be obtained at all. For years, Brady, in tandem with other gun violence prevention groups, has repeatedly petitioned the FTC to investigate the gun industry’s marketing practices.
“It’s through impact litigation that change happens. Products get safer, marketing stops being deceptive, and the gun industry will stop profiting off of loss of life,” said Erin Davis, senior counsel for trial and appellate litigation at Brady. Mass shootings continue to torment the country, and yet, Davis said, marketing practices “have not changed. And really, one of the only ways to get practices to change is to bring a lawsuit like this.”
In the past, companies like Smith & Wesson have largely sidestepped suits of this kind, thanks to the PLCAA. president Joe Biden himself has said that the gun industry is “the only industry in America that is exempted from being able to be sued by the public. The only one.” While that is not entirely true—the gun industry can technically be sued for its products—his statement from him does highlight the kind of legal ingenuity that’s required in taking gun manufacturers to court. “This is like threading the needle through a very, very, very tight hole,” said Scharg, referring to the fastidious nature of the claims.
At its core, the suit accuses Smith & Wesson of having, its ads, “marketed through its firearms in a way that attracted and enabled dangerous persons like shooter.” The company, the complaint argues, “designed advertisements for its products to mimic” the aesthetic of first-person shooter video games, like that of the Call of Duty franchise, which the shooter played avidly. More than that, the complaint contends that not only do the gun manufacturer’s ads specifically target “emotionally troubled young men,” but they also “gamify the use of firearms in real life” and “glorify the lone gunman.” Those claims dovetail with a recent trend of young people perpetrating a disproportionate number of mass shootings. According to The New York Times, six of the nine deadliest US mass shootings since 2018 were committed by people aged 21 or younger; from 1949 to 2017, only 2 of the 30 deadliest mass shootings were committed by people younger than 21.