Alumni Newsmaker: Alla Lefkowitz JD/LLM '10
Lefkowitz, senior director of affirmative litigation at Everytown Law, works to hold gun manufacturers and sellers accountable for laws governing them.
In December 2012, 20 children and six adults died from gunshots at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the fourth deadliest mass shooting in recent history. Prior to that day, Alla Lefkowitz JD/LLM ’10 hadn’t given a lot of thought to guns – an admittedly fortunate position. But as she watched the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut unfold from her New York office, something changed.
“When I saw what happened at Sandy Hook, like a lot of people, it was just so devastating and so shocking that it became much more part of my consciousness to where I thought, ‘I've got to do something about this,’” Lefkowitz recalls.
Lefkowitz made a career change, leaving her job at a top corporate law firm to join the Brady Campaign & Center to Prevent Gun Violence (now Brady) in a move she recounted in a Washington Post profile last December.
In the 11 years since Sandy Hook, guns have proliferated and so have gun-related fatalities in the U.S., rising from more than 33,000 in 2012 to nearly 49,000 in 2021, according to CDC data. (Provisional data for 2022 shows more than 48,000 deaths.) Additionally, tens of thousands more suffer non-fatal injuries each year and countless others live with the aftereffects or fear of experiencing gun violence.
While some in the movement focus on changing gun laws, Lefkowitz, now senior director of affirmative litigation at Everytown Law, works to hold the gun industry accountable through enforcement of existing laws regulating gun manufacturers and dealers. She recently spoke about some of her most notable cases and outcomes, and how Everytown is making a difference.
How do the kinds of cases you litigate fit into the gun violence prevention movement?
When most people think about gun violence, they look at a particular shooting and they look at the perpetrator and his motivations. But what we look at is the sources of illegal guns that are coming into neighborhoods: Where and how did that perpetrator get their gun, when they never should have had one in the first place?
Frequently, illegal guns are coming from the same few gun stores. There are just some shops that are willing to look the other way. One of the things that we try to do is get that business—that source of crime guns—to reform the way they do business and have them understand that if they continue doing business in an irresponsible way, there are actually going to be consequences.
One of my earliest cases at Everytown was out in Kansas City, Missouri. A young man named Alvino Dwight Crawford had been shot by a 14-year-old and we started looking into how this 14-year-old was able to get a firearm. And it turned out there was this entire trafficking ring that was illegally funneling into Kansas City, and this one gun trafficker who was utilizing gun stores in the community who were willing to illegally sell guns through something called straw purchases. The owner of the store that sold that particular gun agreed to surrender his license and federal regulators ultimately issued a notice of license revocation to the gun manufacturer that made and distributed the gun. So the gun industry definitely does notice when this stuff is going on.
Do the Second Amendment arguments at the Supreme Court in cases like Heller, Bruen, and Rahimi filter down to your work?
It does filter down to our work, at least atmospherically. It's something that we see defendants in our lawsuits bring up. But courts understand that what we’re talking about is not preventing any law-abiding individuals from having guns. What we’re talking about is businesses exercising reasonable precautions in the way they sell guns. Even in the Supreme Court rulings, there’s widespread agreement that regulation of commercial transactions is completely constitutional.
A case that we had out of Texas is a good example. We represented the family of Sabika Sheikh, an exchange student from Pakistan. She was killed at Santa Fe High School by a 17-year-old classmate who was able to get ammunition online without any age verification whatsoever.
It’s illegal for someone under the age of 18 to get certain ammunition, so a company actually has to do something to prevent minors from getting it. And we litigated that case at the trial court level, the appellate level, the Texas Supreme Court — basically at every level of court in Texas. And we won at every level, because even though litigating a gun case in Texas is difficult, everyone understood that if it is illegal for someone under the age of 18 to get ammunition, then of course a company should be taking some basic steps to not sell to minors. [The case resulted in a global settlement agreement between the plaintiffs and the ammunition seller.]
People have different views on firearms, but I think we can all agree that they’re restricted products and they are risky products. They’re products that could kill if they get into the hands of the wrong person. And when you think about other risky products like alcohol or tobacco, for example, they come with warnings, right? There's nothing like that in firearms marketing. Instead it seems to be, how far can you push the boundaries? Some of the ads out there are just beyond the pale. They’re just really horrible and irresponsible.
Some of the Sandy Hook families sued Remington over such marketing practices under a Connecticut consumer law and reached a $73 million settlement last year. Has that legal strategy had an impact on your work?
Since 2005, there has been a federal immunity law called the Protection of Lawful Commerce and Arms Act (PLCAA) that immunized the industry from the vast majority of lawsuits. Since that was enacted, not a single gun manufacturer has actually been brought to trial for facilitating one of these shootings. When PLCAA was passed in 2005 it really unshackled the industry, because there was this feeling of impunity, that they can do whatever they want to do and they won't get punished for it. That's what happens when you have a law like that.
That’s why the Sandy Hook settlement was so important, and not just the settlement but the landmark decision from the Connecticut Supreme Court. I think the decision was absolutely correct in the way that it came out, with a really well-written analysis, and that's why you’re seeing other cases use a similar approach. There are exceptions to PLCAA, and I do think that these lawsuits will be able to rely on those exceptions.
We currently represent victims of the Highland Park, Illinois, shooting, where the shooter used a Smith & Wesson assault rifle that has been used in multiple mass shootings. We also represent some of the victims from the Uvalde, Texas, shooting. And both of those involve allegations based on consumer protection laws, like the Sandy Hook case. There hasn't been a substantive decision on those cases yet but I am hopeful that the strategy will succeed, both in the court of law and also in having gun companies look at their marketing practices and really think about what they’re doing.
Numerous polls show a strong majority of Americans actually support measures like stronger background checks, gun safety regulations, even bans of certain classes of firearms. Similarly, it sounds like there’s a lot of common ground in your area of litigation.
The analogy that I use is the opioid epidemic. At a certain point, we as a country realized that blame needed to go toward the people who were distributing opioids at such a large volume and in such an irresponsible way that they needed to be held accountable. And I think it's really the same thing here. People are really starting to understand that we need to look at the industry’s contribution to the gun violence epidemic.
When I talk to people about our individual cases and our individual fact patterns, it resonates much more than just reciting statistics. People understand, of course this web store should have had basic age verification, right? Or of course this store shouldn't have sold 14 of the same guns to one person — why would someone need that many unless they’re trafficking guns? When you talk to people about actual fact patterns, they really do see the need for reform in the industry and for enforcement of the laws that are already on the books. So I definitely think there will be more states and survivors looking to hold the gun industry accountable for wrongful conduct.
When you hear kids talk about this, it gets you every time. I have clients who were kids when they were shot. I represent parents who have lost children as well, and when you think about how this has impacted their lives and how unfair this is and how preventable it is, it can get overwhelming.
But one of the things I've seen which is quite remarkable is we have people now applying to work for us who went to law school for the purpose of going into the gun violence prevention movement and bringing this kind of litigation. I don't think that existed when I was in law school. So that’s really inspiring.
Was there a moment, or a case, when you first felt that the sacrifices you had made to pursue this work, including financial sacrifices, were worth it?
I knew my first week on the job. On my first week at the Brady Center, I was assigned an amicus brief to help defend an assault weapon ban passed in Highland Park and that's how I learned how to litigate the Second Amendment. It was just so interesting and it felt so worthwhile. So I knew right away.
One of the things I really love about what I do is that I get to see cases from the beginning to the end and I feel like they really make an impact on the people that we’re working with. Early on, I represented a woman by the name of Janet Delana, whose daughter was suffering from acute paranoid schizophrenia and wanted to purchase a firearm. She was in her thirties. They lived in a small town in Missouri and Janet called the one gun store in their town, gave them all her daughter’s information and said, ‘My daughter is sick. I am begging you as a mother, please do not sell a gun to her.’ And the guy said, ‘Well, if she comes in and she passes the background check, I have to sell her the gun.’ Which is not true.
And the daughter did exactly what her mom worried she was going to do. She went to the store and they sold her the gun, even though they knew exactly who she was, and within an hour she had killed her father. It was just so devastating and so preventable. On an emotional level of what was going on with her family, it was just horrific. But also this gun store clearly had done something awful and there were just no two ways about it.
Because of PLCAA, there was only one claim that could be brought, but Missouri did not recognize that type of claim at the time as there was case law directly against it. I was literally looking for cases from the 1800s in England, because I knew that a gun store that is put on notice that someone has a severe mental illness should not have sold them a gun.
We went to the Missouri Supreme Court and ended up getting a unanimous decision that the gun store could be held liable, resulting in a multimillion dollar settlement for the client. That was something that really mattered a lot to me. Because I took that case from the very beginning to the very end and got a good result for the client and helped change the law in the state. That’s a matter of personal pride for me.