It doesn’t matter how many Americans are mowed down by the guns in which this country is awash. There will never be enough bodies piled up, no matter how young or old or beloved or extraordinary, to stop Second Amendment absolutists in Congress from doing the gun industry’s bidding.
America won’t treat its own gun sickness. But maybe Mexico can.
In a landmark lawsuit filed in federal court in Boston last summer, the Mexican government seeks to hold American gun companies responsible for the carnage their weapons cause south of the border. Those companies don’t just refuse to do anything about the fact that their guns are being illegally trafficked to murderous drug cartels and other criminals, the suit claims, they actively encourage the illicit trade. On Monday, two other countries and 14 American states, including Massachusetts, filed briefs in support of the Mexican government’s claims.
“We know our guns are killing all these people in Mexico, disrupting their economy and the stability of their government, and we seem not to care at all,” said David Hemenway, co-director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. “We are such bad neighbors.”
Mexico has some of the strictest gun laws in the world: There is but one gun store in the entire country, and fewer than 50 gun permits are issued each year. Yet, in 2021, more than 33,000 Mexicans were murdered, many of them by members of drug cartels, most of them using some of the half-million guns trafficked into Mexico from the US each year. Those guns are used to murder “children, judges, journalists, police, and ordinary citizens,” and cost the government billions each year, the suit claims.
Thanks to easily tracked serial numbers, the 10 companies named in the suit — including Smith & Wesson, based in Springfield and a Billerica gun wholesaler called Interstate Arms — know their guns are ending up in the hands of Mexican cartels, the suit alleges. Still, they refuse to take any measures to stanch the illegal flow — by, for example, cutting off sellers associated with straw purchasers.
But it’s worse than willful blindness, the suit alleges: The gun companies deliberately make their guns more attractive to those cartels. They design them to be easily modified to fire automatically, then market them in ways that attract criminals. And sometimes the pitch is appallingly brazen. Colt makes three .38-caliber pistols Mexican officials say are specifically targeted to the Mexican market. Models El Jefe, El Grito, and Emiliano Zapata 1911 are status symbols in the cartels. Engraved on the pistol honoring Mexican revolutionary Zapata is a quotation attributed to him: “It is better to die standing than to live on your knees.”
As the suit notes, one of those pistols was used in 2017 to assassinate an investigative journalist who had made it her life’s work to uncover corruption and drug trafficking rings.
It doesn’t get any more clear-cut, or more shameful, than that.
Predictably, the industry that pretty much has the run of things in this country has pushed back hard at Mexico’s claims.
“Unable to control cartel violence within its own borders, Mexico filed this lawsuit seeking to place the blame on … firearms manufacturers,” attorneys for the industry wrote in a motion to dismiss the case. “Taking the necessary steps — improving border security, rooting out corruption, and adequately funding police and military, for starters — would require time, resources, and the political will to take responsibility for a massive social problem. So Mexico has opted to dry up the ‘iron river of [firearms]’ at its source.”
Among those industry attorneys, by the way, is former Massachusetts US attorney Andrew Lelling, who represents Smith & Wesson. He declined to comment. But in their filings, he and his colleagues outline some of the reasons this case is going to be a tough one for the Mexican government to advance. They say a foreign government has no right to make the case in a US court. And that even if the case clears that hurdle, the gun industry enjoys liability protections that make Mexico’s claims nonstarters.
“The gun industry will fight tooth and nail on procedural and jurisdictional grounds,” said Heidi Li Feldman, a professor at Georgetown Law who studies gun industry litigation. “They really, really want to prevent any close look at their distribution and marketing practices.”
Feldman, Hemenway, representatives of the Mexican government, and others will be on a virtual panel discussing the case at Harvard’s Petrie-Flom Center on Feb 17.
It’s true, and unconscionable, that the gun industry gets special protections against civil liability in this country — courtesy, again, of lawmakers bought and paid for by the National Rifle Association. The question is how far those protections extend. That’s the issue on which Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey and her counterparts from 13 other states have weighed in.
“It is unacceptable for gun manufacturers and distributors to knowingly market their products in a way that facilitates the illegal trafficking of weapons into the hands of dangerous individuals,” Healey said in a statement issued Tuesday.
Over the next few months, Chief Judge F Dennis Saylor IV will decide whether Mexico can press its claims. If this case proceeds, and the parties get to argue it on the merits, some pretty unflattering stuff is likely to become public, Feldman said, just as it did in cases brought against the tobacco industry and opioid manufacturers.
“The response by the industry has been to say, ‘Who, us? We just happen to be here selling products lawfully that happen to get into the hands of people who abuse them,’” she said. “Well, discovery could blow that defense right out of the water.”
That would be a delight to behold. It would also save lives.