In the summer of 2021, the government of Mexico filed a first-of-its-kind lawsuit against American gun companies and distributors in a federal court in Massachusetts.
The suit seeks to hold US-based gun manufacturers responsible for the deadly flow of weapons trafficked across the border that land in the hands of Mexican drug cartels, which then unleash violence all over the country.
The suit was dismissed in the fall of 2022, but this week the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston has allowed the case to move forward, ruling that gun manufacturers don’t have judicial immunity.
The ruling is a welcome step in the right direction toward — finally — holding gunmakers accountable. For far too long, American gunmakers have escaped liability for the mass carnage that the proliferation of their weapons often inflict. The families of American shooting victims have been left frustrated and with no recourse to pursue justice against the ultimate enabler of gun violence.
That’s because the firearm industry enjoys a significant amount of immunity thanks to the federal Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act. The law, passed in 2005, grants gun manufacturers, dealers, importers, and distributors broad immunity; they typically cannot be held liable in a court of law for the unlawful use of their products.
The law has had a chilling effect on litigation against gun manufacturers, according to Brady, a gun violence prevention nonprofit organization.
In its lawsuit — against Smith & Wesson, Beretta U.S.A. Corp., Colt’s Manufacturing Company, Glock, Inc., Sturm, Ruger & Co., Inc., and other firearm companies — the Mexican government argues that the defendants “are not accidental or unintentional players” in the deadly gun violence for which Mexican drug cartels are responsible.
They “design, market, distribute, and sell guns in ways they know routinely arm the drug cartels in Mexico,” the suit reads. “Defendants use reckless and corrupt gun dealers and dangerous and illegal sales practices that the cartels rely on to get their guns.” Despite knowing how to prevent illegal trade, because “the U.S. government and a U.S. court told them how” the gun companies “defy those recommendations … and instead choose to continue supplying the criminal gun market in Mexico — because they profit from it.”
It’s a legitimate point, especially since Mexico has very strong gun laws. As stated in the lawsuit, Mexico regulates firearms at the federal level and issues fewer than 50 gun permits per year. The country has just one gun store.
And yet Mexico has the third-most gun-related deaths in the world, according to the lawsuit, with the overwhelming majority of them caused by guns coming illegally from the United States. A 2020 federal report estimated that nearly 70 percent of guns recovered in Mexico between 2014 and 2018 were from the United States. Between 2007 and 2019, there were 180,000 homicides committed with guns in Mexico.
Mexico’s attorneys have argued in court that the PLCAA, the law that shields the gun industry, applies to litigation relating to injuries that take place in the United States. The appeals panel said that Mexico and its lawyers had presented a “plausible” argument that the case was “statutorily exempt” from the PLCAA.
It’s a significant victory that “pierced the unfair legal shield that gun companies have been hiding behind,” Jonathan Lowy, a counsel for Mexico on the case and a founder of Global Action on Gun Violence, told The New York Times.
The case can also be a blueprint for victims of gun violence to get justice. Last fall, Lowy and Manuel Oliver, the father of Joaquin Oliver, who died in the 2018 Parkland High School mass shooting, wrote a Globe op-ed about the “Lawsuit for Survival,” an international legal case they brought before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. “Gun violence is at record levels and while the public demands a stop to the carnage, Congress has done more to protect the gun industry than people’s lives,” Lowy and Oliver wrote. “Lax US gun policy has caused an international public health and safety crisis, and blatantly violates human rights laws.”
As for Mexico’s lawsuit, it is likely that the gun industry will appeal the latest ruling. Mexico has a real public safety problem and the case shouldn’t be seen as an attempt on the Mexican government’s part to deflect responsibility. On the contrary, two things can be true at once: The Mexican government has the right to demand accountability from foreign industry actors that facilitate gun violence in its backyard, while at the same it should be fully enforcing its own laws to protect its citizens from the cartels.