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Nuns Sue Smith & Wesson Over AR-15-Style Rifle Deaths

A coalition of four Catholic nun congregations said in a lawsuit filed on Tuesday that the gun maker Smith & Wesson has put shareholders at risk in the way it makes, markets and sells its AR-15-style rifle.

The nuns, who are Smith & Wesson shareholders, argue that the gun maker is exposing itself to liability by intentionally violating laws in its production and sale of the rifles, which have been used in several high-profile mass shootings.

The lawsuit, filed in the Eighth Judicial District Court in Clark County, Nev., states that Smith & Wesson “has enjoyed with abandon the record-breaking profits from its sale of AR-15 rifles, seemingly unfazed by the exponential rise in gun deaths and mass shootings carried out with its product in the United States.”

The nuns are from Adrian Dominican Sisters in Adrian, Mich.; the Sisters of Bon Secours USA in Marriottsville, Md.; the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia in Aston, Pa.; and the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, U.S.-Ontario Province in Marylhurst, Ore.

Mark Smith, the chief executive and president of Smith & Wesson, said in a statement that the nuns were “not interested in the best interests of the company or its stockholders.”

He added, “This frivolous lawsuit is simply another instance in their long history of attempting to hijack and abuse the shareholder advocacy process to harm our reputation and company.”

Earlier this year, the nuns sponsored a resolution to have Smith & Wesson conduct an assessment of the human rights impact of its business practices, but a majority of shareholders voted against it in September.

The nuns’ action this week is a derivative lawsuit, a legal mechanism that allows shareholders to sue the leaders of a company for breaching their duties.

Jeffrey Norton, the lead lawyer for the nuns’ coalition, said on Thursday that his clients collectively owned more than 1,000 shares of Smith & Wesson.

Jennifer Wu, a clinical assistant professor of finance at the University at Buffalo School of Management, said that 1,000 shares was a “very, very small” amount of the 46 million outstanding shares of Smith & Wesson.

“In order to actually make this shareholder activism work, this nun group needs to get support from other investment groups,” Professor Wu said.

In the lawsuit, the nuns asked Smith & Wesson to change its marketing to limit the appeal of guns to young men and people who would be inspired by militaristic imagery in the company’s advertising to use guns “against their perceived enemies.”

“We call on Smith & Wesson to return to the practices of its first 153 years of existence when it held itself as a successful beacon of responsible gun ownership and did not manufacture, market or sell military-grade, mass-killing assault weapons,” the nuns said in a statement.

In recent years, groups seeking to combat gun violence in the United States have turned to novel legal tactics to get around the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, a federal law protecting gun companies from litigation that Congress enacted in 2005.

Survivors and families of victims of a Fourth of July shooting last year in Highland Park, Ill., sued Smith & Wesson over its marketing. Seven people were killed and more than 30 people were injured, ranging from children to older adults, in the shooting.

Smith & Wesson began making AR-15-style rifles in January 2006, two years after a federal assault weapons ban expired, the nuns’ lawsuit said. The ban had outlawed specific military-style semiautomatic weapons and magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition.

Smith & Wesson AR-15-style rifles were used in several recent mass shootings, including by the gunman who killed 18 people in Lewiston, Maine, in October. After a two-day manhunt, the gunman was found dead with a Smith & Wesson handgun and an AR-15-style rifle, officials said.