Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Mexico requests reopening of lawsuit against US gun manufacturers

The Mexican government on Monday presented its case in favor of the reopening of a US $10 billion lawsuit against United States-based gun manufacturers and expressed confidence that its arguments will be “well received.” 

The federal government sued gunmakers, including Smith & Wesson and Barrett Firearms in August 2021, accusing them 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 such as homicide. 

Soldier with a weapon
An army official carries high-caliber weapons collected at an event for the surrender of firearms in Oaxaca in 2022. Such weapons are nearly impossible to obtain legally but are often smuggled into Mexico from the United States, where they are sold in many regions close to the border. (Cuartoscuro)

Mexico’s case — championed by former foreign affairs minister Marcelo Ebrard until he left that position last month — was dismissed by the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts in September 2022, prompting the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (SRE) to file an appeal in March.

The SRE noted in a statement on Monday that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston had “heard Mexico’s oral arguments in its lawsuit against gun manufacturers.”  

“… The Mexican Government seeks to reverse the September 30, 2022, ruling in which the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts dismissed the lawsuit,” the ministry said. 

The SRE noted that the federal judge who dismissed the lawsuit, F. Dennis Saylor,  ruled that the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA) “grants immunity to the defendant companies, even if the damage caused occurs in Mexican territory.”

The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act was signed in 2005 by U.S. president George W. Bush. (Paul Morse/The White House)

It said that its appellate brief argued that the federal district court “erred in defining the focus of the PLCAA so broadly and in such absolute terms and thus granting immunity to the gun companies.”

The SRE said that in the appeals court on Monday, lawyers for the Mexican government made two points. 

  • There is no provision in the PLCAA explicitly stating that it can be applied to damages caused outside the U.S. territory, therefore, it does not grant immunity to the companies for damages caused in Mexico. 
  • Alternatively, even if the PLCAA is again held to be applicable, the actions and omissions committed by the gun companies fall under the exceptions to PLCAA immunity, so the Mexican case should be allowed to continue.
Soldiers in the street
Both the U.S. and Mexican governments have agreed on the premise that violence in Mexico is often fueled by guns smuggled from the United States. At issue is whether or not the Mexican government is entitled under U.S. law to damages from U.S. firearms manufacturers. (Omar Martínez/Cuartoscuro)

“The appeals panel that heard Mexico’s arguments was made up of one female and two male judges considered to be liberal and progressive in their outlook,” the SRE said.  

“The Mexican Government is confident that its arguments will be well-received by the court. Should Mexico win the appeal, the case will return to the lower court to be judged on its merits.”

Steve Shadowen, a lawyer for the Mexican government, said that a favorable ruling by the appeals court would allow Mexico to not only seek damages from gun manufacturers but also a court order that could help combat the thousands of murders perpetrated every year with weapons illegally smuggled into Mexico from the United States. 

“What we want is an injunction to make these defendants start paying attention to their distribution systems,” Shadowen said. “And it’s only U.S. courts that can provide that injunctive relief.”

Handguns, AK-47s, .50 caliber rifles and other weapons displayed at a press conference on arrests and weapon seizures by Operation Fast and Furious.
The Mexican government claims that some 500,000 guns are smuggled into Mexico from the United States every year. (Rebekah Zemansky via Shutterstock)

The Mexican government claims that some 500,000 guns are smuggled into Mexico from the United States every year and that over 68% of that number are manufactured by the companies it sued, which also includes Beretta USA, Colt’s Manufacturing Co. and Glock Inc. 

Noel Francisco, a lawyer for Smith & Wesson, argued that Mexico’s lawsuit lacked allegations that gun sales by the accused gun manufacturers did anything that created an exception to the broad protections provided by the PLCAA. 

“You have licensed manufacturers that sell to licensed distributors that sell to licensed retailers that sell to individuals who satisfy the requirements of federal law, but some of them happen to be straw purchasers,” he said.

A ruling from the Boston-based appeals court is expected in the coming months, the news agency Reuters reported. However, Alejandro Celorio Alcántara, the SRE’s legal advisor, said that a decision might not come for six to eight months. He added that the government was “optimistic” that it will receive a favorable ruling. 

These weapons were seized by authorities in Nogales, Arizona, as criminals attempted to smuggle them into Mexico. (@CBPPortDirNOG/Twitter)

“The simple fact that … [people] in Mexico, in the United States and around the world are paying more attention to … [Mexico’s] legal arguments is already a victory in itself,” Celorio said. 

In its 2022 lawsuit, Mexico alleged that U.S. gun companies were aware that their business practices caused illegal arms trafficking in Mexico.

Colt’s, for example, manufactured a pistol embellished with an image of Emiliano Zapata, a hero of the Mexican revolution. That weapon was used in the 2017 murder of Chihuahua-based journalist Miroslava Breach.

The government argued that other arms manufacturers also design weapons to appeal to criminal organizations in Mexico, among which are drug cartels such as the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel.

Separately, the government filed a lawsuit against five gun stores in Arizona last October. In that case, which is ongoing, Mexico alleged that the five stores “routinely and systematically participate in the illegal trafficking of arms, including military-style ones, for criminal organizations in Mexico, through sales to straw purchasers and sales directed to arms dealers.”

With reports from Reuters and El País 

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