SENATOR SANDERS FAILS TO REPLY TO MEETING REQUEST FROM AURORA SURVIVORS ORDERED TO PAY $200,000 TO GUN COMPANIES

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:  October 19, 2015
MEDIA CONTACT: leveritt@csgv.org, Cell: (202)-701-7171
Denver, CO—Two parents whose daughter was killed in the 2012 mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado have requested a meeting with Democratic presidential candidate/Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders to discuss his position on a law that grants the gun industry unprecedented legal immunity, but have not received any reply to date.

Sandy and Lonnie Phillips’ daughter Jessica Ghawi was killed in the movie theater massacre that took place in Aurora, Colorado on July 20, 2012. The shooting left 12 dead and 70 others injured and was one of the worst in U.S. history.  Since the massacre, Sandy and Lonnie have been active in advocating for better gun laws at the federal and state level.

On October 8, the Phillips emailed a letter to the scheduler for Senator Sanders, Jacob Gillison, requesting a meeting with the Senator. The Phillips hoped to discuss the 2005 “Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act” (PLCCA), which gave firearm manufacturers, distributors and dealers broad immunity from negligence-based lawsuits. Senator Sanders voted for the legislation as a Member of the U.S. House of Representatives and continued to support it during his campaign for president.

Speaking to “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd recently, Sanders revised his position on PLCAA. The Senator indicated he believed the law offers reasonable protections to average gun shop owners, but added, “That was a complicated vote and I’m willing to see changes in that provision … Can we take another look at that liability issue? Yes.”  He reiterated this position a few days later at the first Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas, Nevada. Sandy and Lonnie were in attendance at the debate and recognized by candidate/former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley during his remarks.

The Phillips have personal experience with the Gun Industry Immunity law. In 2014, they filed suit in a U.S. district court in Denver against an online gun dealer, Lucky Gunner (BulkAmmo.com), that supplied 4,000 rounds of ammunition to the Aurora shooter without even requesting basic identification like a driver’s license. According to Sandy, she and Lonnie initiated the lawsuit “because we thought it was outrageous that companies could sell a dangerous man an arsenal without getting any information about him … These companies set up their business so people just like this killer can arm themselves at the click of a mouse. We wanted to change that. And we still do.”  The two sought no financial compensation from Lucky Gunner—only injunctive relief to force the company to behave responsibly. They are being represented pro bono in the case by Arnold and Porter and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

Unfortunately, Judge Richard Matsch dismissed the case in March 2015, citing PLCCA and a Colorado state adjunct, HB 000-208, as the reason. Furthermore, the judge ordered Sandy and Lonnie to pay $203,000 dollars in legal fees to Lucky Gunner and a second company, The Sportsmen’s Guide.

Since PLCAA was enacted in 2005, only two such lawsuits have even made it to a jury for consideration. One of those cases (recently, against Badger Guns in Milwaukee, Wisconsin) resulted in a verdict against a gun dealer, pending appeal.

Sandy and Lonnie have received no reply since emailing their letter to Jacob Gillison on October 8th.  According to Sandy, the two are merely “seeking an opportunity to meet with Senator Sanders to share their personal experience with the Gun Industry Immunity law and to better understand why he continues to see merit in some of its provisions.”

“I would like to give Senator Sanders the benefit of the doubt,” said Lonnie, “but he is not giving the American public any clear reason why he thinks the gun industry should be given any type of special protections not enjoyed by other industries. We do not want to see other families suffer like we have. There has to be some accountability here.”

The full text of the Phillips’ October 8th letter is as follows:

Dear Senator Bernie Sanders,

Our daughter, Jessica Ghawi, was killed in the Aurora Theater three years ago.  Last month we watched the killer’s face reveal nothing resembling remorse as he was sentenced to twelve life sentences. We are unequivocal in our belief that our lawmakers have failed to act in the interest public safety by refusing to pass legislation that could have stopped the killer in his tracks. Reasonable restrictions on large orders of armor piercing bullets that are sold online to anonymous buyers would be a very good place to start in order to prevent a mentally ill person from committing mass murder.

In an effort to plug the gaping hole that allows military grade armaments into the hands of a mass murder we sued the online sellers. We simply wanted them to change their reckless practice of selling a 100 round magazine along with 4000 rounds of armor piercing bullets, body armor, and tear gas without checking for a driver license.

Our lawsuit was for injunctive relief, not for money, but it was dismissed on the first motion before we ever got a chance to present our case. The Judge cited the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act as cause for dismissal and to add insult to injury he ordered us to pay the outrageous sum of 203,000 in attorney’s fees and cost to the defendants.

We do not have this kind of money. We have just reached retirement age and should be enjoying the grandchildren Jessi never gave us.  Instead we are having to file bankruptcy.  We were shocked, even as gun owners, when we discovered how ridiculously lax our Federal gun laws were and we wanted to do something about it.  We wanted to use or constitutional right for redress in the civil courts to effect change in the bad practices of online sellers of lethal armaments.

We were denied our day in court by the unconstitutional Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act. PLCAA gives gun companies protection from the most basic principles of civil justice — negligence law — that no other industry has.

It takes away the rights of gun violence victims, in a way no other federal law ever has, and it takes away state authority over its own tort law.

PLCAA does have some exceptions that have allowed for some gun industry liability, such as when dealers sell guns in straw purchases and those guns are then used in a crime. That is what we hoped to achieve with our lawsuit.

We are aware of your vote on the Protection of Legal Commerce in Arms Act and that you still stand beside that decision. We would like an opportunity to meet with you and have a dialog on this issue so we can better understand why you made the decision to vote for this egregious law.

Thank you for your consideration,

Lonnie and Sandy Phillips


The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence (CSGV) seeks to secure freedom from gun violence through research, strategic engagement and effective policy advocacy. CSGV can be found on Facebook and Twitter.

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