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The ‘outside game’: Mexico City conference highlights new efforts in combatting gun violence and trafficking

After decades of trying and failing from within the United States, advocates have started to look beyond the country’s borders for allies in the struggle to reduce gun violence and trafficking.

MEXICO CITY (CN) — Gun violence and trafficking prevention advocates have found a dependable ally in Mexico, whose government recently brought a second lawsuit against the U.S. firearms industry for negligent business practices. 

That was the message put across by speakers at an international conference held in Mexico City Thursday. Representatives from the Mexican government, the United Nations, academia and civil society groups convened at Colmex University for a two-day series of talks titled “The business of lethality: Arms trafficking to Mexico,” where they spoke about new strategies to stem the tide of guns flowing south across the U.S.-Mexico border. 

“The inside game — that is, working strictly within the United States to prevent gun violence — has not worked,” said Jonathan Lowy, founder of the newly established Global Action on Gun Violence (GAGV). “The outside game is something that might be more successful.”

The outside game involves combating the firearms industry’s role in gun violence both inside the United States and abroad from outside the country. Lowy, who worked as chief legal counsel for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence for 25 years before founding GAGV in September, highlighted Mexico’s leading role in this new front in the fight against gun violence. 

“Countries and people from outside of the U.S., with Mexico in the lead, can help international organizations to have the potential to pressure or force the U.S. and that industry to finally reduce gun violence,” said Lowy. 

This map shows the municipalities in Mexico where the most guns trafficked from the United States have been confiscated from January 2020 to September 2022, according to data from Mexico's federal Attorney General's Office. (Mexico's Foreign Affairs Secretariat)

Mexico’s leading role has come in the form of a pair of lawsuits over the last 15 months to hold U.S. gun manufacturers and distributors accountable for negligent business practices. The Mexican government filed the first of these suits against several gun manufacturers in August 2021, claiming in the 139-page complaint that as many as 90% of the guns recovered at crime scenes in the country were trafficked from the United States.

A federal judge in Massachusetts ruled against Mexico in that case in September, citing federal law as barring Mexico from bringing a substantiated complaint. Mexican authorities have said they plan to appeal the ruling. 

Filed in Arizona in October, the second suit takes aim at firearms distributors. In that suit's 138-page complaint, the Mexican government claims the distributors listed as defendants knowingly engage in sales destined for the illicit market. 

The 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, or PLCAA, has largely protected U.S. gun manufacturers from being held liable for crimes committed with their products. However, Mexico alleges that the cited manufacturers are not protected by PLCAA, since the guns they sold were used in crimes committed in Mexico, not the United States.

Lowy cited Mexico’s lawsuits as one reason to believe that international action can reduce gun violence in the United States, saying that they have already made accomplishments in the endeavor “to some degree.” Litigation originating outside the United States can also compel gun manufacturers to reform their business practices. 

“By forcing companies to internalize some of the costs of the harm that they cause, suits can make supplying criminals less profitable,” said Lowy, who emphasized that PLCAA should not protect gun companies in cases brought from outside the United States. 

Another pillar of this strategy of outside pressure is the fact that other countries are not as constrained by the gun lobby as politicians and organizations within the United States are.

“They act with a boldness and clarity that’s rarely seen among U.S. political leaders,” said Lowy.

This sentiment was shared by Alejandro Celorio, head legal counsel on the two lawsuits for Mexico’s Foreign Relations Secretariat. In addition to the legal outcomes of the suits, he highlighted the need to ramp up social pressure on the U.S. gun industry. 

“We have to raise awareness of the problem more, talk more about it, because it’s a very broad issue,” he said in an interview with Courthouse News.

“We have to ask ourselves what is needed and if what we’re doing as a society and government is on the right track,” Celorio said during his presentation at the conference. “I can say that today, yes, we are on the right track.”

This map displays the U.S. counties that sell the most guns that were confiscated at Mexican crime scenes, according to data from Mexico's Attorney General's Office. (Mexico's Secretariat of Foreign Affairs)

He pointed to the work the Mexican government has put into its most recent lawsuit, which includes data of the U.S. counties from which the majority of the arms confiscated in Mexico originate. 

“We know the counties …, we’ve identified the distributors that sell the majority of firearms that are illicitly trafficked,” said Celorio. “It would appear clear, evident, obvious that we have to do very little to solve a lot of problems.”

Speaking to reporters outside the conference after giving one of the keynote addresses, Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard called on the United States to take action on the responsibility it shares for the violence in Mexico.

“Just like we [in Mexico] have made an effort to limit precursor chemicals and the activity of drug traffickers, now the goal is for the United States to do its part and not indirectly arm them through this trafficking,” said Ebrard.

For advocates like Lowy, this outside pressure on the U.S. gun industry could be a turning point in their struggle to reduce gun violence. 

“It certainly is new, particularly when you include the litigation,” said Lowy in an interview with Courthouse News. “It’s the approach that we as the world community have to take.”

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