Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Mexico wins appeal in lawsuit against US gunmakers filed in Boston

A United States appeals court ruled Monday that a US $10 billion lawsuit filed by Mexico against U.S.-based gun manufacturers in 2021 can proceed, annulling a lower court’s dismissal of the case.

The Boston-based United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit overturned Judge F. Dennis Saylor’s dismissal of the case against gunmakers including Smith & Wesson, Barrett Firearms, Beretta and Glock.

John J. Moakley Courthouse in Boston, Massachussets
The U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts had dismissed the lawsuit in 2022 and the Mexican government appealed. (UScourts.gov)

Mexico filed its lawsuit in August 2021, accusing seven gun manufacturers and one distributor of negligent business practices that have led to illegal arms trafficking and deaths in Mexico, where U.S.-sourced firearms are used in a majority of high-impact crimes.

In dismissing the case in September 2022, Saylor, chief judge of the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, said that U.S. law “unequivocally” prohibits lawsuits that seek to hold gun manufacturers responsible when people use their products for their intended purpose.

He said that Mexico’s case couldn’t surmount a provision in the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA) that protects gun manufacturers from lawsuits over “the harm solely caused by the criminal or unlawful misuse of firearm products … by others when the product functioned as designed and intended.”

Mexico appealed the decision, arguing that the PLCAA only prevents lawsuits over injuries that occur in the United States and does not protect gun manufacturers from liability over the trafficking of weapons to Mexican crime groups.

Alejandro Celorio at a press conference
Alejandro Celorio Alcántara is the Foreign Affairs Ministry’s legal counsel and he described the appeals court decision as a “great triumph for Mexico” in an interview on Tuesday. (Alejandro Celorio A/X)

The appeals court ruled Monday that “Mexico’s complaint plausibly alleges a type of claim that is statutorily exempt from the PLCAA’s general prohibition.”

“We therefore reverse the district court’s holding that the PLCAA bars Mexico’s common law claims, and we remand for further proceedings,” U.S. Circuit Judge William Kayatta said in a 60-page written ruling.

Kayatta said the appeals court found that “Mexico’s complaint adequately alleges that defendants have been aiding and abetting the sale of firearms by dealers in knowing violation of relevant state and federal laws.”

The appeals court ruled that the case must return to the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts.

Mexico’s reaction to the ruling

On the X social media platform, Foreign Affairs Minister Alicia Bárcena described the appeal court’s decision as “great news.”

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (SRE) said in a statement that “Mexico welcomes the ruling,” adding that the appeals court was “very receptive to the sophisticated arguments presented by our country in defense of its interests and those of its people.”

“Once the case returns to the lower court, Mexico will present evidence to demonstrate the defendants’ negligence and seek reparation for the damages, which will be determined by the judge,” the SRE said.

Mexican officials have estimated that damages could be as high as US $10 billion if the lawsuit is successful.

In its statement, the SRE noted that “Mexico’s lawsuit is the first brought by a foreign state against the gun industry in U.S. courts” and described the appeal court’s ruling as “unprecedented.”

Alicia Bárcena at a press conference
Foreign Affairs Minister Alicia Bárcena hailed the U.S. court’s decision to allow the lawsuit to proceed. (SRE/X)

In its lawsuit, the government alleged that gunmakers design weapons to appeal to criminal organizations in Mexico.

“Mexico is denouncing these promotional practices, along with other examples of negligence, like multiple weapons sales to a solo buyer, and the absence of background checks,” it said in a court document filed in 2021.

Steve Shadowen, a lawyer for the Mexican government, said Monday’s ruling is “an important step forward in holding the gun industry accountable.”

“It should now be clear that those who contribute to gun violence must face legal consequences, regardless of borders,” he said in a statement.

Jonathan Lowy, president of the U.S. organization Global Action on Gun Violence and co-counsel for Mexico along with Shadowen, said the ruling is “a huge step forward in holding the gun industry accountable for its contribution to gun violence, and in stopping the flood of trafficked guns to the cartels.”

“Not only did the Court recognize the right of another country to sue U.S. gun companies, it also pierced the unfair legal shield that gun companies have been hiding behind since 2005,” he added.

A blow for U.S. gunmakers 

The New York Times reported that the appeal court’s decision “is one of the most significant setbacks for gunmakers since passage of a federal law [the PLCAA] nearly two decades ago that has provided immunity from lawsuits brought by the families of people killed and injured by their weapons.”

Larry Keane, a top official with the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSFF), the United States gun industry’s main trade association, said on X that the NSFF disagrees with the decision and is reviewing its legal options.

Gun store
Gun manufacturers have denied any wrongdoing and assert that Mexico’s lawsuit does not adequately demonstrate an exception to their protections under the law. (bestpawntucson)

“Mexico should spend its time enforcing its own laws and bring Mexican criminals to justice in Mexican courtrooms, instead of scapegoating the firearm industry for their unwillingness to protect Mexican citizens,” he wrote.

Gunmakers have denied any wrongdoing. Their lawyers, Reuters reported “say Mexico’s lawsuit is devoid of allegations the gun manufacturers’ gun sales themselves did anything that would create an exception to PLCAA’s broad protections.”

Gun violence in Mexico 

In the 60-page appeals court ruling published Monday, Judge Kayatta acknowledged the plaintiff’s argument that “Mexico has strict gun laws that make it ‘virtually impossible’ for criminals to obtain firearms legally sourced in the country.”

“It has one gun store in the entire nation and issues fewer than fifty gun permits a year. Despite these strong domestic regulations, Mexico has the third-most gun-related deaths in the world,” he wrote.

“The number of gun-related homicides in Mexico grew from fewer than 2,500 in 2003 to approximately 23,000 in 2019. The percentage of homicides committed with a gun similarly rose from fifteen percent in 1997 to sixty-nine percent in 2021. The increase in gun violence in Mexico correlates with the increase of gun production in the United States, beginning with the end of the United States’ assault-weapon ban in 2004,” Kayatta said.

Soldiers with a confiscation of weapons
National Guard and members of the military with weapons and ammunition confiscated in Zacatecas in December. (Cuartoscuro)

In 2023, there were 29,675 homicides in Mexico, according to preliminary government data that will likely be revised upward. A majority of murders in Mexico are perpetrated with firearms and linked to crime groups, including powerful drug cartels such as the Jalisco New Generation Cartel and the Sinaloa Cartel.

Kayatta acknowledged that Mexico’s lawsuit “details a steady and growing stream of illegal gun trafficking from the United States into Mexico, motivated in large part by the demand of the Mexican drug cartels for military-style weapons.”

“For example, Mexico claims that between seventy and ninety percent of the guns recovered at crime scenes in Mexico were trafficked into the country from the United States,” he wrote.

Reducing the number of firearms smuggled into Mexico from the United States is a key focus of the bilateral relationship between the two countries.

However, at various times, the Mexican government has called on its U.S. counterpart to do more to stop the southward flow of weapons.

The government estimates that hundreds of thousands of guns enter Mexico illegally every year, while data from the Federal Attorney General’s Office obtained by the El Economista newspaper last August showed that the number of firearms estimated to have been brought into Mexico illegally since 2012 is more than 20 times higher than the number of guns seized by authorities in the same period.

With reports from Milenio and Reuters 

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