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Sandy Hook lawsuit could force Remington to open books

A recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court has upended a longstanding legal roadblock that has given the gun industry far-reaching immunity from lawsuits in the aftermath of mass killings.

The court this week allowed families of victims of the 2012 Sandy Hook school massacre to sue the maker of the AR-15 used in the attack. The case against Remington will now proceed in the Connecticut courts.

Remington is widely expected to win the case, but critics of the gun industry are eyeing what they see as a significant outcome even in the face of defeat: getting the gunmaker to open its books about how it markets firearms.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs are certain to request that Remington turn over volumes of documents as part of the discovery phase, providing a rare window into the inner-workings of how a major gun manufacturer markets its weapons. Those materials might include company emails, memos, business plans and corporate strategies, or anything that might suggest the company purposely marketed the firearm that may have compelled the shooter to use the weapon to carry out the slaughter.

The plaintiffs also believe the ruling will put gun companies on notice about how they conduct business knowing they could wind up in the courts in similar fashion.

“If the industry wakes up and understands their conduct behind closed doors is not protected, then the industry itself ... will take steps to try to help the massive problem we have instead of do nothing and sit by and cash the checks,” said Joshua Koskoff, the Connecticut attorney who represents a survivor and relatives of nine victims who died at the Newtown, Connecticut, school on Dec. 14, 2012.

The case hinges on Connecticut state consumer law that challenges how the firearm used by the Newtown shooter — a Bushmaster XM15-E2S rifle — was marketed, with plaintiffs alleging Remington purposely used advertisements that targeted younger, at-risk males. In one of Remington’s ads, it features the rifle against a plain backdrop and the phrase: “Consider Your Man Card Reissued.”

Remington did not respond to requests for comment after the U.S. Supreme Court denied its efforts to quash the lawsuit.

Larry Keane, senior vice president and legal counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents gunmakers, said he anticipates Remington will ultimately prevail and that it’s unfair to blame the gunmaker for Adam Lanza’s crime.

“Adam Lanza alone is the responsible person. Not Remington,” he said.

Suing the firearms industry has never been easy, and it was made even harder after Congress enacted the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act in 2005. The law backed by the National Rifle Association gave broad immunity to the gun industry.

The chances of the plaintiffs ultimately succeeding in this case are slim — a sentiment shared by the Connecticut Supreme Court, which said they face a “Herculean task” to prevail.

Judges and juries generally have a tough time blaming anyone but the shooter for the crime, said Timothy D. Lytton, professor at Georgia State University's College of Law and author of "Suing the Gun Industry: A Battle at the Crossroads of Gun Control and Mass Torts."

Add into the mix that Lanza himself didn’t own the firearm; he stole it from his mother after killing her in the home they shared, then went to the elementary school in Newtown, where he killed 20 children and six adults.

“It makes it harder for juries to connect the dots. It’s a significant hurdle in all of these cases. It’s very rare that you have a very close timeframe between the marketing of a weapon and a mass shooting,” Lytton said.

Lanza’s mother purchased the Bushmaster AR-platform rifle in 2010 from a Connecticut gun shop. It’s unclear if she or her son were influenced by or had seen Remington’s advertising.

Still, it’s been a tough few years for the industry. Sales plummeted with the election of President Donald Trump, and gun-control advocates have outspent perhaps his most loyal supporter: the NRA. With slumping sales, some companies, including Remington, have faced bankruptcy. And in the wake of high-profile mass shootings, corporate America has begun pushing back against the industry.

AR-platform long guns have been a particular bone of contention for gun-control advocates who believe the firearms — once banned for a decade in the U.S. — are especially attractive to mass shooters for their ease of use and their ability to carry large capacity magazines.

While handguns remain used more often in mass shootings, ARs have been involved in some of the deadliest shootings, including when a gunman fired on a crowd of concertgoers outside his hotel room in Las Vegas in 2017, killing 58 people and wounding hundreds.

The AR-15, its design based on the military M-16, has become one of the most popular firearms in the U.S. in recent decades. Lightweight, easy to customize and able to carry extended magazines, sales took off once the ban expired in 2004. There are now an estimated 16 million AR-platform long guns in the U.S.

Robert J. Spitzer, chairman of political science at the State University of New York at Cortland and a longtime watcher of gun politics, said a case against Remington could cause “pretty embarrassing information” to come out.

“And it is certainly possible they will find memos or other documents that may significantly support their case that Remington was manifestly irresponsible in the way they marketed their guns,” Spitzer said.

Even if embarrassing information isn’t uncovered, he said, it could have a long-lasting impact on the industry and, more specifically, Remington. Considered the oldest gunmaker in the United States, Remington — founded in New York in 1816 and now based in Madison, North Carolina — only emerged from bankruptcy in 2018.

“They’re obviously in a precarious financial situation and this suit is certainly not helpful to them trying to restore their financial health,” Spitzer said.

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Associated Press reporter Dave Collins in Hartford, Connecticut, contributed to this report.


News
With kinship care rising, more support needed

HUNTINGTON — Imagine you are 60 years old. You’ve worked your whole life and are preparing for something every working person looks forward to — retirement.

But then something happens to your child. Maybe she has a substance use disorder or maybe he fell on hard times financially. No matter the circumstances, you are now faced with raising your grandchild, potentially a decade or more since you’ve been actively parenting.

That is the circumstance grandparents, great-grandparents, and even other family and friends are facing as more children are taken into state custody and placed in foster care across the country.

“Some are taking care of children when they haven’t in 40 years,” said Brian Hankins, a state social worker who worked with Wayne County’s Healthy Grandfamilies group. “A lot has happened in 40 years. The 1970s versus now? Way different.”

Between 2011 and 2017, the nation’s reliance on kin to care for foster children rose 43.5%, according to data compiled by the Chronicle of Social Change. At the same time, West Virginia’s rate rose 136%.

With the country now working under the Family First Prevention Services Act and West Virginia independently working toward reducing the number of children in congregate care at the direction of the Department of Justice — along with the fact that the number of children in the child welfare system doesn’t appear to be declining anytime soon — experts believe the nation’s and West Virginia’s reliance on kin will only continue to increase. Thankfully, officials say more resources may be on the way to assist those families.

Kinship care

At the end of October, 3,518 of the 6,996 foster children in West Virginia were living with kin, which could be blood relatives or someone close to the child, like a family friend, teacher or church member.

Nearly 61% of those kinship caregivers have opted to become certified foster parents, which means they can receive a boarding payment from the state. The remaining families are uncertified.

Uncertified homes still go through a background and home check, but they don’t do the training and licensure required to receive the boarding payment. Uncertified kinship caregivers can still receive assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, program, and get services and assistance from the state that other foster families receive.

“One beautiful thing about Family First is kids do not have to enter foster care — a lot of kids still legally belong to their parents, but they have active cases,” said Laura Barno, Family First implementation director for West Virginia Department of Health and Human Services. “With Family First, relative kin that assist parents and work with the family to correct the issue can also have services provided to them.”

Barno said West Virginia was already a little more liberal with its funding to provide services to relatives and caretakers.

“We are not the traditional families we once were,” she said. “Grandparents are a very important support for families these days.”

To receive state support, though, the child has to be at immediate risk of being placed in the custody of the state.

According to the Chronicle data, the number of families caring for a child that were not receiving payment from a child welfare agency rose 25% from 2011 to 2017. In West Virginia, it rose 84%.

Part of this may be due to what some child welfare experts call the hidden foster care system.

In a Standford Law Review piece, University of South Carolina associate professor of law Josh Gupta-Kagan refers to hidden foster care as when Child Protective Services agents remove a child from their parents without oversight from the court system. Gupta-Kagan writes that while informal custody changes sometimes serve children’s and parents’ interests by preventing state legal custody, there is far greater risk that the rights of families are being infringed upon. He says new federal regulations are giving the stamp of approval to this unregulated system.

“This Article’s concern is that, absent legal regulation, the status quo gives CPS agencies tremendous power to determine the unusual case in which hidden foster care is appropriate,” Gupta-Kagan writes. “Given the weighty stakes involved and the state power exercised, more procedural protections than are currently provided should be required.”

Barno said she does think something like this is happening in West Virginia, though not because of CPS. Based on child abuse and neglect history checks, Barno said it is clear a lot of relatives are going through the family court system to get infant guardianships. She called it an off-the-record child welfare system.

“What happens when you divert through that avenue, sometimes the parental interest is not protected,” she said.

In a CPS case in the circuit court system, parents are granted representation and there are procedures in place to protect families, she said. In family court, there is no improvement plan because family courts don’t have the jurisdiction to enforce them.

She said while this may work for some families, it is not ideal for others. These families also cannot receive state support because they do not have an open child welfare case.

Moral support

Even without financial support, there is moral support out there for all who find themselves caring for a loved one.

Healthy Grandfamilies is a free initiative led by West Virginia State University to provide information and resources to grandparents who are raising one or more grandchildren. The program is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Initially designed as a nine-week program, some areas of the state have continued a support group from there, including Putnam County.

Donald and Sharron Schmitt started attending Putnam County Schools’ Healthy Grandfamilies program when it started in 2018 after being informed about it by their grandson’s guidance counselor. They have attended nearly all of the meetings since.

The couple was in their early 60s when they got custody of their now-11-year-old grandson.

“We were the natural people to step in and take over,” Sharron Schmitt said. “There wasn’t a thought of doing anything else. It’s what we felt and what we wanted to do.”

Donald Schmitt said it is a different age than when they raised their two daughters.

“The internet makes so much more information available,” he said. “The first two didn’t have any of that — maybe some video games. Now the internet and electronic devices present a whole new challenge. It’s all come so fast that it takes time to learn the ins and outs.

“What this group provided was some help in bringing us up to speed, resources and how it all works, and what the dangers are. I suspect looking at the people that come, probably a lot are in the same situation.”

Hankins, who worked with programs in Wayne and Cabell counties, said along with parenting in 2019, many of the group participants are dealing with poverty, stigma, and their own grief and emotions.

One woman he met said on a scale from 1 to 10, her stress level was a 10.5. She was dealing with grief because she hadn’t seen her daughter in 10 months and didn’t know where she was, but at the same time, she was angry with her for the state she found her grandchildren in. She wanted help with time management and how to discipline.

These families also need help navigating the child welfare system.

“Oftentimes in the emergency of the moment, a CPS worker may go in and place a child with grandparents but may not immediately loop back to tell them you can apply for TANF, get a clothing allowance and all those things caregivers need,” Barno said. “Navigating the child welfare system is not natural for everyone.”

For years, states have been able to receive grants for kinship navigator programs, but those funds will expire in a year. The Family First clearinghouse is evaluating evidence-based kinship programs that open funding back up for those programs.

The Schmitts said they recommend attending a Healthy Grandfamilies program, even if you are not a grandparent but an aunt or uncle, or any other type of kinship caregiver. They said the camaraderie is very helpful.

To find a Healthy Grandfamilies program in your area, visit healthygrandfamilies.com.

Follow reporter Taylor Stuck on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.


News
Santa Claus touches down at the Huntington Mall

BARBOURSVILLE — Santa Claus made his grand arrival at the Huntington Mall on Saturday, ushered in by a couple of reindeer and a Christmas train in tow.

It’s that time of year again when children can get their pictures taken with St. Nicholas and then tell him what they want under their trees this Christmas.

To kick off the season, the Huntington Mall hosted Santa’s arrival to the mall’s center court with plenty of selfies and rides on the All Smiles Aboard trackless train.

Santa Claus will be available for pictures every day at the mall until Dec. 24, from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from noon to 6 p.m. on Sundays.

The mall is also hosting the Macy’s Believe Santa letter workshop, located behind the Christmas tree in center court. For each child who fills out a wish for Santa, Macy’s will donate $1 to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

Children can also get their photo taken with Santa at the Ashland Town Center, where he will be available daily until Dec. 24.