A memorial of flowers and other tribute items arrayed outside Robb Elementary after a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers at the Uvalde, Tex., school in 2022.

A memorial of flowers and other tribute items arrayed outside Robb Elementary after a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers at the Uvalde, Tex., school in 2022. (Sergio Flores for The Washington Post)

SAN ANTONIO — The lawyer who won a record-setting settlement for Sandy Hook families announced two lawsuits Friday on behalf of Uvalde school shooting victims against the manufacturer of the AR-15-style weapon used in the attack, as well as the publisher of “Call of Duty” and the social media giant Meta.

The lawsuits against Daniel Defense, known for its high-end rifles; Activision, the manufacturer of first-person shooter game “Call of Duty”; and Meta, the parent company of Facebook, may be the first of their kind to connect aggressive firearms marketing tactics on social media and gaming platforms to the actions of a mass shooter.

The complaints contend the three companies are responsible for “grooming” a generation of “socially vulnerable” young men radicalized to live out violent video game fantasies in the real world with easily accessible weapons of war.

One of those men, the legal team argues, was Robb Elementary School shooter Salvador Ramos. The lawsuits allege Meta and Activision “knowingly exposed the Shooter to the weapon, conditioned him to see it as the solution to his problems, and trained him to use it.”

“Over the last 15 years, two of America’s largest technology companies — Defendants Activision and Meta — have partnered with the firearms industry in a scheme that makes the Joe Camel campaign look laughably harmless, even quaint,” the complaint states.

The lawsuits are part of an intensifying quest for accountability by relatives of the Uvalde victims through the civil courts. Nineteen students and two teachers were killed in the attack, one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history. Law enforcement officers waited 77 minutes to enter the classroom and kill the gunman.

“The truth is that the gun industry and Daniel Defense didn’t act alone. They couldn’t have reached this kid but for Instagram,” attorney Josh Koskoff said of the shooter. “They couldn’t expose him to the dopamine loop of virtually killing a person. That’s what ‘Call of Duty’ does.”

This week, Koskoff announced his clients had reached a $2 million insurance payout with the city of Uvalde, which agreed to a series of reforms to improve its police department. The city also agreed to establish May 24 as an annual day of remembrance, make improvements to the local cemetery, work with them on plans for a permanent memorial and offer continued support for children’s mental health.

On Wednesday, Uvalde families filed a new lawsuit against 92 members of the Texas Department of Public Safety, including state troopers and Texas Rangers who responded to the scene. Victims’ families are upset that relatively few officers have lost their jobs, despite the long delay in entering the classroom. DPS Chief Col. Steve McCraw remains the state’s top cop despite promises to resign if his agency were found to be culpable.

In January, the Department of Justice released a damning 575-page catalogue of confusion, lack of courage and their deadly consequences. Attorney General Merrick Garland said that “lives would have been saved” if officers had responded quickly.

The new civil lawsuits against police, the firearms manufacturer, an online gaming publisher and social media companies attempt to close the accountability gap left open by authorities, attorneys said. Koskoff, the medical malpractice and personal-injury lawyer who won a $73 million settlement on behalf of the Newtown, Conn., families in 2022, said Wednesday in Uvalde his clients are still waiting for answers.

“What is enabling these school shooters or any shooter?” he said. The children “were failed long before the shooting.”

In a statement, Activision expressed sympathy to the families and communities impacted by the “horrendous and heartbreaking” shooting. But they said: “Millions of people around the world enjoy video games without turning to horrific acts.”

Meta and Daniel Defense did not respond to requests for comment.

In the years since the 2012 shooting in Koskoff’s home state of Connecticut, his firm has been working closely with the victims of mass shootings across the country. In a case against Remington, the then-manufacturer of the Bushmaster rifle used in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, Koskoff’s team managed to find a loophole around the federal immunity law shielding the gun industry from most tort litigation.

Only one other industry — online platforms such as Facebook’s parent company — enjoys the same kind of legal protection from liability that firearms manufacturers lobbied for and won from Congress in 2005.

Koskoff’s challenge was expected to fail. But he argued that the gunmaker violated a state statute, specifically consumer protection laws outlawing unscrupulous marketing. The state Supreme Court allowed the case to move forward, granting Koskoff that most precious of gifts to an attorney: discovery.

Internal documents and communications demonstrated the questionable tactics the company, which was in bankruptcy at the time, used to sell their firearms.

“The families refused to settle and wanted to release the discovery results they achieved,” Georgetown University law professor Heidi Li Feldman said. “That’s the power of discovery, to open up all these companies to more litigation. When product manufacturers are involved in shady marketing practices, they fear the spotlight.”

Before it could go further, the insurers settled. The case provided a road map for future civil litigation, some experts said.

“I think it opened a lot of eyes that maybe PLCAA [the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act] wasn’t the brick wall we all thought it was,” said Adam Skaggs, vice president and chief counsel of the Giffords Law Center, which fights for laws to end gun violence. “Clearly, it’s not impossible and that kind of changed the game.”

Several state legislatures, including California and Hawaii, passed consumer safety laws specific to the sale and marketing of firearms that would open the industry to more civil liability. Texas is not one of them. But it’s just one vein in the three-pronged legal push by Uvalde families.

The lawsuit against Activision and Meta, which is being filed in California, accuses the tech companies of knowingly promoting dangerous weapons to millions of vulnerable young people, particularly young men who are “insecure about their masculinity, often bullied, eager to show strength and assert dominance.”

“To put a finer point on it: Defendants are chewing up alienated teenage boys and spitting out mass shooters,” the lawsuit states.

Research shows that there is some correlation between playing violent video games and exhibiting more aggressive behaviors, but there is little evidence that the games lead to violent crime such as mass shootings, said David Dupee, a chief psychiatry resident at Stanford Health.

“The evidence definitely supports guns being the issue far more … than it does to violent video games,” said Dupee, who researched the topic while working for Stanford’s Brainstorm Lab. “We’re not the only society that has a large utilization of violent video games, but we are the main modern society that has ready access to firearms.”

In the filings, Koskoff laid out what is perhaps the most detailed narrative yet of the forces that may have shaped Ramos’s decision to buy the powerful rifle he used to slaughter children on May 24, 2022.

The families allege in court that while Ramos was still 17, he put the gun in an online shopping cart. When he didn’t immediately proceed in purchasing the AR-15-style rifle, the lawyers contend that Daniel Defense saw it as an opportunity, emailing Ramos a targeted offer and telling him the weapon was “ready” for him.

“Daniel Defense’s marketing strategy is to be the company where adolescents get their first gun at 18,” Koskoff said.

The lawsuit alleges that Meta, which owns Instagram, easily allows gun manufacturers like Daniel Defense to circumvent its ban on paid firearm advertisements to reach scores of young people. Under Meta’s rules, gunmakers are not allowed to buy advertisements promoting the sale of or use of weapons, ammunition or explosives. But gunmakers are free to post promotional material about weapons from their own account pages on Facebook and Instagram, a freedom the lawsuit alleges Daniel Defense often exploited.

According to the complaint, the Robb school shooter downloaded a version of “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” in November 2021 that featured the DDM4V7 model rifle Ramos would later purchase on the game’s opening title page. Drawing from the shooter’s social media accounts, Koskoff argued he was being bombarded with explicit marketing and combat imagery from the company on Instagram.

The lawsuit cites an image Daniel Defense posted on Instagram of soldiers on patrol, with no animal in sight, and a caption that reads: “Hunters Hunt.” In another post, Daniel Defense shared an image of one of its rifles sporting a configuration it said was “totally murdered out,” according to the lawsuit. Daniel Defense still runs its accounts on Instagram and Facebook, where the company continues to routinely post images of its guns.

Such leniency is part of a broader pattern by Meta to treat firearm sellers with a light touch, the lawsuit alleges.

The complaint cites Meta’s practice, first reported by The Washington Post in 2022, of giving gun sellers wide latitude to knowingly break their rules against selling firearms on its websites. The company has allowed buyers and sellers to violate the rule 10 times before they kicked them off the social network, The Post reported.

Meta’s penalties for firearm sales were more lenient than for users who posted child pornography, which is illegal, or terrorism imagery, which prompts immediate removal from the platform.

Meta has over the years also come under criticism for allowing the sale of guns directly on its platform. After the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting, a coalition of activist groups, including the parents of the slain students, pushed Meta, then called Facebook, to limit sales of gun on its platform. Then New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman later alleged the company was allowing people to evade laws requiring a background check in many states. By 2016, the company had banned peer-to-peer firearm sales as well as the sale of ammunition and parts.

Since then, media outlets have routinely found that sellers can easily evade those bans in dedicated Facebook groups or on Facebook Marketplace, the company’s classified services.

Much of the new Uvalde lawsuit against Meta echoes some of the complaints by dozens of state attorneys general and school districts who have accused the tech giant of using manipulative practices to hook children on its platforms while exposing them to harmful content.

The Uvalde families are likely to encounter significant hurdles in each of the new lawsuits they are filing. Their legal strategy revolves around a Texas statute that makes it illegal to offer to sell a firearm to a minor. But the state vigorously defends its state law enforcers and gunmakers.

The legal team’s past victory bears little resemblance to the one ahead of them, said UCLA law professor Adam Winkler, a Second Amendment expert. Remington is not Daniel Defense, which has no incentive to back down or settle, lest it face boycotts from the rest of the industry, he said.

“You’re talking about one of the ideological stalwarts of the gun rights movement,” Winkler said. “They are a small outfit, but they played a leading role.”

But the families may have new reason for optimism in their cases against Meta and Activision. A New York judge has allowed a case brought by families affected by the Tops supermarket shooting in Buffalo, New York, to hold several social media companies’ algorithms responsible for radicalizing the shooter, to move forward toward discovery.

“Whatever advantages the gun industry has through the federal immunity law, it’s not a blanket get-out-of-jail free card,” Winkler said. “When companies make decisions to market particularly dangerous products or use marketing tactics that encourage particularly troubled young men to commit heinous acts, the victims of those heinous acts have the opportunity to try to hold them accountable.”

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