Photo: Alex Wong (Getty)

For decades, an incredibly powerful network of lawyers, businessmen, and politicians have aggressively gamed every facet of the legal system to sell as many guns in this country as possible. They have been enormously successful. Americans own 48 percent of all civilian-owned firearms in the world (we are about four percent of the world’s population). If meaningful gun laws ever got passed in America, nearly every firearm manufacturer would have to radically change their business model. Fortunately for those gun manufacturers, our laws are fucked, and the gun companies occupy a nearly unassailable position that allows them to sell whatever tools of violence they want with very little legal repercussion when those tools are used as intended.

However. As the New York Times reported today, a group of families whose children were killed at Sandy Hook in 2012 are pursuing a new strategy for taking on the gun lobby, one that’s reminiscent of the wave of lawsuits against Big Tobacco. Here’s the core of their strategy, per the Times:

Now, families of the victims from the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School hope to replicate the tactic: using litigation as a means to pry open the gun industry, employing the discovery process to unearth internal communications and examine the practices behind marketing and selling powerful firearms like the one used in the attack.

“We can find out what the Remington defendants have tried every step of the way to block in discovery,” said David Wheeler, whose 6-year-old son, Ben, died at Sandy Hook, about the gun maker that was among the companies named in the lawsuit.

[...]

Gun companies are protected from most legal action when their weapons are used to commit a crime, as stipulated by Congress in 2005. The families tested a novel strategy to pierce those protections by focusing on the marketing for the AR-15-style Bushmaster used by the gunman in the attack.

In the lawsuit, the families assert that the weapon used in the massacre was marketed in a way — with militaristic and hypermasculine slogans — that specifically reached out to troubled young men like the one who carried out the attack.

The families’ aim, according to past legal filings, is to compel the companies to turn over troves of documents in hope that the records will bolster the case, like those discussing strategies for branding and promoting the weapon, including product placements in video games and marketing it as a good gift for family members.

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The problem with the idea is that it may not work quickly—but it could work. As the Times points out, this litigation strategy helped chip away at the cigarette industry in the 60s, 70s and 80s, eventually resulting in much stricter advertising and disclosure regulations on tobacco companies. The marketing around guns is almost entirely militaristic, undermining the argument many proponents make that their gun is simply a “tool.” This is a lie when it comes to many of the modern weapons available to civilians today. Many, like the Bushmaster XM15-E2S Adam Lanza used (among other weapons) to murder 20 children and 7 adults at Sandy Hook, were specifically designed to be used in combat with human beings and are marketed as such, despite the industry’s thin justifications that they can also be used for target shooting and hunting.

Here’s the description for the Bushmaster XM-15 from its website. As you can see, recreation is an afterthought—its military service is touted first.

It’s the foundation upon which Bushmaster MSR supremacy has been built for more then 38 years. The XM-15 platform is a proven performer; in the hands of law enforcement organizations, military units in more than 50 countries, and countless competitors, hunters and recreational shooters. It’s the model of adaptability, ready to configure for your pursuit.

This is just one example of many. For further reference, go to the magazine aisle of your local supermarket and pick up a copy of any gun-focused magazines. You’ll find page after page of ads that would seem to strongly support the Sandy Hook families’ case—if a judge will go for it.