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Highland Park shooting victims say they are fighting back as they cope day by day

Lauren Bennett was shot in her back during the Highland Park shooting. Her mother and mother-in-law also suffered bullet wounds.

Lauren Bennett, who was shot twice, is among a group suing a gunmaker over the shooting. “Anything that could help prevent this,” she said.

HIGHLAND PARK — Three months after the July 4 shooting in Highland Park, Lauren Bennett stood before a bank of cameras and described what it was like to feel two bullets sear her body that day.

“Imagine a hot, metal, dart-like projectile, tearing through your body … faster than the speed of sound,” Bennett said, her hands shaking as she clutched her script.

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She was speaking at a press conference organized by her team of lawyers to announce a set of lawsuits. They are accusing the alleged shooter, his father, gun-maker Smith & Wesson and two firearm dealers of being responsible for the violence that erupted at the Independence Day parade that killed seven and wounded dozens of others.

Despite her nerves, Bennett said it felt therapeutic to speak up.

“There was something kind of easy about it because it’s my words, my truth,” the 41-year-old Highland Park resident told WBEZ several days later.

A makeshift memorial in Highland Park was created to honor the victims of the July 4 shooting. Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

Bennett attended the parade with her husband, her two youngest sons, her parents and her husband’s parents. Her mom and mother-in-law also suffered gun wounds.

She’s angry that nearly everyone in her family was in the line of fire that day. That her sons lost their innocence in a matter of seconds. That she constantly finds herself thinking about the sound and sight of bullets.

Joining the lawsuit is her way of fighting back.

“This is about my family. And we are not the same, we will never be the same,” said Bennett, a petite woman with long, graying hair that frames her face. “I have injuries painted on my body that I have to look at every day.”

Bennett is one of the dozens of victims of the Highland Park shooting who have joined the suits, fueled by anger and a desire to put an end to mass shootings. They want to hold the gun industry accountable, specifically naming gun-maker Smith & Wesson for the way it markets its line of “Military and Police” assault rifles. The suits cite what they say are violations of Illinois law that prohibits consumer fraud and deceptive practices.

“Their advertising seems to glorify this type of mentality of, ‘You’re under siege, the world is a battlefield and this is what you need to do to survive in it,’ ” said Jon Straus, whose 88-year-old father Steve Straus was killed in the shooting. “That’s grotesque to me. To promote that type of mentality is just wrong. And I don’t want my dad to have died for nothing.”

Jon Straus shares a picture taken with his father, Steve Straus. Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

A new legal approach

The lawsuits go after the marketing practices of Smith & Wesson, which makes the assault rifle police say was used in the shooting.

“For years, the manufacturer has deceptively and unfairly marketed its assault rifles in a way designed to appeal to the impulsive, risk-taking tendencies of civilian adolescent and post-adolescent males,” one of the lawsuits charges. They also allege that Smith & Wesson implies a connection between its “Military & Police” assault rifles and the U.S. military that does not exist.

Historically, victims of gun violence had little success suing gun manufacturers over deaths and injuries caused by firearms. That’s because Congress gave gun manufacturers and dealers broad immunity from lawsuits over gun crimes in 2005 after being lobbied by the industry.

That law, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, not only shields gun-makers from lawsuits over gun crimes, but it also overrides state laws that could hold the companies liable.

But the landscape changed earlier this year when victims of the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Conn., settled with gunmaker Remington for $73 million.

By targeting Remington’s marketing practices, the attorneys found a legal exception that allows these kinds of lawsuits to proceed.

“The Sandy Hook plaintiffs are really one of the only three times that plaintiffs have brought these lawsuits against firearms manufacturers and received a settlement of any kind,” said Timothy Lytton, a law professor at Georgia State University who has studied lawsuits against the firearms industry for decades.

He said no plaintiffs have ever won a jury award or won in court against a gun-maker, but “the idea that you could pursue a case far enough to get to settlement, I think, was something that’s probably attractive to the attorneys in the Highland Park case.”

This strategy could give the Highland Park victims a real chance of winning this legal battle, Lytton said, as well as pave the way for future cases against the firearms industry.

Smith & Wesson, the two gun stores named in the suits and the lawyer representing the alleged shooter, Robert Crimo III, and his father, Robert Crimo Jr., didn’t respond to WBEZ’s requests for comment. The father is named for helping his underage son obtain a gun permit.

The suits also contend that the two gun stores involved in the sale and transfer of the weapon to Crimo, Bud’s Gun Shop in Kentucky and Red Dot Arms in Lake Villa, violated Highland Park’s ban on assault weapons.

“I want it to make sense in my head”

Victims of the shooting — and their loved ones — struggle every day coming to terms with what happened.

Straus said his father Steve was “the pillar holding things up” in their family, including serving as their mother’s primary caretaker. Now that he’s gone, Straus and his brother are still figuring out how to fill the void.

Straus, who lives in Chicago, said the outpouring of support from family and friends has helped him cope. But there are days when he can’t stop thinking of a single fact: He wasn’t at the parade with his father as he took his last breath.

“He wasn’t alone … yet that’s something that will always haunt me,” Straus said.

Jon Straus is trying to fill the void left by his father’s death. Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

Each member of the Bennett family is grieving in their own way.

Her husband and 9-year-old son are “math and science kind of guys,” Lauren Bennett said. “They like facts. So from the beginning, they just took the emotion out and had to go through what happened, piecing everything together.”

Bennett has found comfort in talking to other witnesses.

“I just want to know all the details, what they remember,” she said. “I’m kind of my own little journalist, just because I want it to make sense in my head.”

The lawsuit is helping in that way too — helping Bennett try to connect the dots that led to the shooting and to demand accountability.

“This is a [legal] battle that needs to be fought,” she said. “And anything that could help prevent this [in] the future, I’m on board and I will put my face out there for the cause.”

Reporter Anna Savchenko covers criminal justice for WBEZ. Follow her @annasavchenkoo.

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