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Mexico sues U.S. gun manufacturers over arms trafficking toll

UPDATED: Wed., Aug. 4, 2021

Handguns are displayed at the Smith & Wesson booth at the Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade Show in Las Vegas in January 2016.  (John Locher)
Handguns are displayed at the Smith & Wesson booth at the Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade Show in Las Vegas in January 2016. (John Locher)
By E. Educardo Castillo </p><p>and Christopher Sherman Associated Press

MEXICO CITY – The Mexican government sued United States gun manufacturers and distributors Wednesday in U.S. federal court, claiming their negligent and illegal commercial practices have unleashed tremendous bloodshed in Mexico.

The unusual lawsuit was filed in U.S. federal court in Boston. Among those being sued are some of the biggest names in guns, including: Smith & Wesson Brands Inc.; Barrett Firearms Manufacturing Inc.; Beretta U.S.A. Corp.; Colt’s Manufacturing Co. LLC and Glock Inc. Another defendant is Interstate Arms, a Boston-area wholesaler that sells guns from all but one of the named manufacturers to dealers around the U.S.

The manufacturers did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The Mexican government argues the companies know their practices contribute to the trafficking of guns to Mexico and facilitate it. Mexico wants compensation for the havoc the guns have wrought in its country.

The Mexican government “brings this action to put an end to the massive damage the Defendants cause by actively facilitating the unlawful trafficking of their guns to drug cartels and other criminals in Mexico,” the lawsuit said.

The government estimates 70% of the weapons trafficked to Mexico come from the U.S., according to the Foreign Affairs Ministry. And in 2019 alone, at least 17,000 homicides were linked to trafficked weapons.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation, the U.S. firearm industry’s trade association, said in a statement it rejected Mexico’s allegations of negligence.

“These allegations are baseless. The Mexican government is responsible for the rampant crime and corruption within their own borders,” said Lawrence G. Keane, the group’s senior vice president and general counsel. The Mexican government is responsible for enforcing its laws, he said.

The group also took issue with Mexico’s figures for the number of guns recovered at crime scenes and traced back to the U.S. It said traces were attempted on only a fraction of the recovered guns and only on the ones carrying a serial number, making them more likely to have originated in the U.S.

Alejandro Celorio, legal adviser for the ministry, told reporters Wednesday the damage caused by the trafficked guns would be equal to 1.7% to 2% of Mexico’s gross domestic product. The government will seek at least $10 billion in compensation, he said. Mexico’s GDP last year was more than $1.2 trillion.

“We don’t do it to pressure the United States,” Celorio said. “We do it so there aren’t deaths in Mexico.”

Ebrard said the lawsuit was another piece of the government’s efforts against guns. “The priority is that we reduce homicides,” he said. “We aren’t looking to change American laws.”

Mexico did not seek the advice of the U.S. government on the matter, but advised the U.S. Embassy before filing the lawsuit.

Steve Shadowen, the lead attorney representing Mexico, said that in the early 2000s about 30 U.S. cities brought similar litigation against gun manufacturers arguing they should be responsible for increased police, hospitalization and other costs associated with gun violence.

As some cities started winning, gun manufacturers went to Congress and got an immunity statute for the manufacturers. Shadowen said he believes immunity doesn’t apply when the injury occurs outside the United States.

“The merits of the case are strongly in our favor and then we have to get around this immunity statute which we think we’re going to win,” he said. “That statute just simply doesn’t apply. It only applies when you’re in the United States.”

He said he believes it is the first time a foreign government has sued the gun manufacturers.

Adam Winkler, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles and expert on gun policy, called Mexico’s effort a “long shot.”

“It is a bold and innovative lawsuit,” he said. “We haven’t seen anything like this before. The gun manufacturers have enjoyed broad immunity from lawsuits for now two decades.”

He said he had not seen arguments the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act applies only to damages in the United States.

The sale of firearms is severely restricted in Mexico and controlled by the Defense Department. But thousands of guns are smuggled into Mexico by the country’s powerful drug cartels.

There were more than 36,000 murders in Mexico last year, and the toll has remained stubbornly high despite President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s pledge to pacify the country. Mexico’s nationwide murder rate in 2020 remained unchanged at 29 per 100,000 inhabitants. By comparison, the U.S. homicide rate in 2019 was 5.8 per 100,000.

In August 2019, a gunman killed 23 people in an El Paso Walmart, including some Mexican citizens. At that time, Foreign Affairs Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said the government would explore its legal options. The government said Wednesday recent rulings in U.S. courts contributed to its decision to file the lawsuit.

It cited a decision in California allowing a lawsuit against Smith & Wesson to move forward, a lawsuit filed last week against Century Arms related to a 2019 shooting in Gilroy, California, and the $33 million settlement reached by Remington with some of the families whose children were killed in the Newtown, Connecticut, Sandy Hook Elementary mass school shooting.

Winkler, the UCLA professor, mentioned the Sandy Hook lawsuit as one that initially few thought would go anywhere.

“The plaintiffs in that case made an innovative and bold argument, too,” he said. “They argued that the immunity statute does not prevent these gun makers from being held liable where they act negligently.”

“Over the past year or so, we’ve seen some cracks in the immunity armor provided by federal law,” Winkler said. “Even if this lawsuit moves forward, it will be extremely difficult for Mexico to win because it will be hard to show that this distribution process or their distribution practices are a manifestation of negligence on the part of the gun makers.”

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