Estate of couple murdered during Pittsburgh synagogue shooting sues Colt
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Oct. 27 shootingHoping to save lives

Estate of couple murdered during Pittsburgh synagogue shooting sues Colt

The son of Bernice and Sylvan Simon, as executor of his parents' estate, has filed a lawsuit alleging that the gun lobby incited the Oct. 27, 2018, killer to anti-Semitic violence.

A memorial outside the Tree of Life building after the Oct. 27, 2018, anti-Semitic murders of 11 congregants. (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)
A memorial outside the Tree of Life building after the Oct. 27, 2018, anti-Semitic murders of 11 congregants. (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)

This article was updated on Jan. 25 to include a statement from the NRA.

The son of a couple murdered during the massacre at the Tree of Life building on Oct. 27, 2018, has filed a lawsuit in the Allegheny Court of Common Pleas against Colt Manufacturing alleging that the gun lobby, through anti-Semitic propaganda, incited the shooter to carry out “one of the bloodiest acts of domestic terrorism in United States history” with an AR-15, a “machine gun not suitable for civilians.”

Marc Simon, as executor of the estate of his parents, Bernice and Sylvan Simon, has also named the shooter as a defendant in the lawsuit.

“Our goal first and foremost is to save lives,” said Robert Bracken of Bracken Lamberton, LLC, one of the lawyers representing Simon. “If we can prevent just one hate crime or avert just one mass shooting, it’s worth it.”

The 45-page complaint alleges the gun lobby radicalized the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter with a barrage of white supremacist conspiracy theories about Jews. The complaint is peppered with screenshots from social media posted by leaders of the National Rifle Association and its supporters with explicit anti-Semitic messages and imagery. One post by Andrew Anglin, the founder of the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, reads: “Join the NRA to end Semitism.”

According to the complaint, in 2016, Wayne LaPierre, the executive vice president of the NRA, said that “European-style socialists” who “hate individual freedom” had taken control of American government, and “[t]hat should terrify every citizen who values the American ideal in this country of individual liberty.”

“European-style socialists,” the complaint alleges, “is white supremacist code for Jews.”

Ted Nugent, an NRA board member, later posted “a facially anti-Semitic meme on Facebook branding a number of prominent Jews as ‘evil,’ a term that the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter also used when he talked about Jews on social media,” the complaint states.

“We’ve seen what can happen with hate speech on social media,” said Charles Lamberton, co-counsel for Simon. “It echoes around and gets amplified. Dangerous people become more dangerous. It’s a recipe for disaster.”

“AR-15s are designed to kill people,” Lamberton added. “That’s the only thing they’re good for. A company that puts profits ahead of people and floods our markets with these military weapons must be held accountable.”

The complaint alleges that mass shootings are profitable because donations to the gun lobby and sales of ammunition surge afterward.

Simon’s lawsuit, filed on Jan. 21, 2021, also names the NRA as a defendant. However, because the NRA filed for bankruptcy on Jan. 15, 2021, no claims are brought against the NRA in the lawsuit.

“Our deepest sympathies go out to those impacted by this tragic event,” said Amy Hunter, director, NRA Public Affairs in an email. “The NRA promotes the safe, lawful use of firearms and is saddened by this horrific event. We stand with those who strictly enforce our current gun laws and call for the protection of all houses of worship.”

This is not the first time that a gun manufacturer has been sued for violence inflicted by its products, Bracken explained. While those cases generally have not been successful, he believes this case has a chance to prevail because of a recent court decision — and a new administration in the White House.

Other cases, he said, “have been stymied” by the PLCAA (Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act), an immunity law protecting gun manufacturers. But recently, a panel of judges on the Pennsylvania Superior Court deemed that law unconstitutional.

“So that’s provided us with an avenue to really go after the companies like Colt that floods the market with these AR-15s,” Bracken said.

The Superior Court, however, has granted re-argument for that case, Bracken acknowledged. But, he noted, one of the reasons re-argument was granted was because the United States intervened in the case.

“Now we have a new administration, and President Biden has been very clear that he is opposed to AR assault weapons being sold to the public, so who knows if they continue with that intervention,” he said.

Bracken hopes the Simon case will be a game-changer.

“There’s no reason for that weapon to be on the market,” he said. “Basically they were designed for our military so they would have the most lethal gun possible. Once the Vietnam War started to slow down and started to come to an end, Colt in particular decided, ‘We need to continue making money.’ So they put this on the civilian market.”

That decision was made for “profit over safety,” said Bracken. “There’s no real purpose to this gun so we’re hopeful this lawsuit will lead to change.”

Colt Manufacturing did not immediately respond to a request for comment. PJC

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at ttabachnick@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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