Catholic nuns sue Smith & Wesson to halt its assault-style weapons sales

FILE PHOTO: Attendees inspect Smith and Wesson rifles at the National Rifle Association's (NRA) annual meeting, in Indianapolis, Indiana

By Tom Hals

WILMINGTON, Delaware (Reuters) - A group of Catholic nuns on Tuesday sued the board of Smith & Wesson to try to force the gunmaker to abandon the manufacture, marketing and sales of assault-style rifles that have been used in U.S. mass shootings.

The nuns, in a lawsuit filed in state court in Nevada, allege that Smith & Wesson's directors and senior management exposed the company to significant liability by intentionally violating federal, state and local laws and failing to respond to lawsuits over mass shootings.

"These rifles have no purpose other than mass murder," the nuns said in a statement.

Smith & Wesson, which is incorporated in Nevada, did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

AR-15 assault-style rifles have been used in a number of mass shootings that have shocked Americans.

The first page of the lawsuit contains a photo from a mass shooting at a Colorado cinema in 2012 that showed a Smith & Wesson assault rifle on the blood-splattered ground next to pink sandals. Twelve people died and 70 were injured in the attack.

The group of nuns filed the lawsuit in their role as Smith & Wesson shareholders, in what is known as a derivative lawsuit. Such lawsuits seek to hold corporate boards liable for breaches of their duties to shareholders, although courts generally find boards are protected from lawsuits for good-faith decisions.

If successful, the lawsuit would hold the company's directors liable for any costs associated with the allegedly illegal marketing of assault rifles and any damages would be paid to Smith & Wesson, not the plaintiffs.

The lawsuit is the first derivate case against a board over assault rifles, according to Jeffrey Norton, an attorney for the nuns.

The nuns alleged that the directors of Smith & Wesson have ignored growing legal risks from making assault-style rifles.

For many years, gunmakers enjoyed broad immunity for liability from mass shootings due to a 2005 U.S. law known as the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act. But last year, rival gunmaker Remington agreed to pay $73 million to settle claims by families of the victims of the 2012 shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, which has encouraged others to sue over mass shootings.

In addition, New York, Illinois and California are among the states that have adopted laws that either ban assault rifles or make it easier to sue over their use.

At the same time, the U.S. Supreme Court and many other states have taken steps to expand gun-owner rights.

Smith & Wesson warned in its 2022 annual report that it might have to pay significant damages due to legal proceedings against the company.

The case in Nevada was brought by the Adrian Dominican Sisters of Adrian, Michigan; Sisters of Bon Secours USA of Marriottsville, Maryland; Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia of Aston, Pennsylvania; and Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus & Mary, U.S.-Ontario Province of Marylhurst, Oregon.

(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi and Leslie Adler)