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They’re not made here: Mexico sues US gun-makers over cartel weapons

Posing a new threat to gun manufacturers already reeling from potential liability for U.S. mass shootings, the Mexican government says their “willfully blind, standardless distribution practices” have led to a destabilization of Mexican society.

BOSTON (CN) — U.S. law has long barred gun manufacturers and sellers from being held liable for the misuse of their products, but a federal complaint filed Wednesday says legislators never contemplated violence south of the border.

The Mexican government brought the suit in Massachusetts, the home of what it calls the oldest gun wholesaler in America, Interstate Arms Corp., one of more than half a dozen top U.S. gun manufacturers or retailers named as a defendant.

“Defendants’ willfully blind, standardless distribution practices aid and abet the killing and maiming of children, judges, journalists, police, and ordinary citizens throughout Mexico,” the 139-page complaint states. “Defendants’ unlawful conduct has substantially reduced the life expectancy of Mexican citizens and cost the Government billions of dollars a year.”

Interstate is named as a defendant along with the Springfield, Massachusetts-headquartered Smith & Wesson; Barrett Firearms; Beretta USA; Colt's Manufacturing; Glock Inc.; Sturm, Ruger & Co.; and Century International Arms — the last of which imports Romania's version of an AK-47 assault rifle into the United States.

"Century Arms has long known that its WASR assault rifles are among the cartels’ favorites," the complaint states.

Mexico's drug cartels are the nonparty villain behind the government's complaint, which notes that up to 90% of all guns recovered at Mexican crime scenes were trafficked from the U.S.

Of the cartel violence, the complaint charges that "defendants are not accidental or unintentional players in this tragedy; they are deliberate and willing participants, reaping profits from the criminal market they knowingly supply — heedless of the shattering consequences to the government and its citizens."

The Mexican government included this graph in a federal complaint against leading gun-makers and sellers. (Image via Courthouse News)

Represented by attorneys at Shadowen and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, Mexico claims that the gun-makers engaged in negligence, nuisance, and ran afoul of Connecticut and Massachusetts consumer protection laws.

"The gun manufacturers have access to real-time sales data, and trace requests by the ATF, that they could use to identify corrupt gun dealers," attorney Steve Shadowen wrote in an email Wednesday. "They have refused to do it. The government of Mexico says it is negligent — outrageous — for the manufacturers to refuse to stop these corrupt gun traffickers when they have the ability to do it."

The suit comes only about a week after a federal judge refused to toss litigation against the bankrupt gun-maker Remington brought by victims of the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. Colt and other gun-makers face similar claims from victims of the Las Vegas gunman who opened fire on the outdoor Route 91 Harvest Musical Festival in 2017. 

These cases have managed to survive dismissal under the 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which says gun-makers are not to be held responsible for the misuse of their products. Mexico says the law is of no help to the defendants in this case because "every aspect of PLCAA confirms that the U.S. Congress enacted that statute with only U.S. domestic concerns in mind."

Adam Winkler, a professor of law at UCLA School of Law whose specialty is the Second Amendment, said Mexico’s suit is “bold and innovative” but one which “could fairly be called a long shot.”

PLCCA is a broad law, Winkler said, but one that does not cover negligence claims, though negligence is hard to prove.

Dru Stevenson, a law professor at South Texas College of Law whose work has focused on gun violence, also noted that the federal law granting firearm manufacturers immunity is silent on the issue Mexico asserts: application to incidents out of the country.

“This is going to be a pretty complicated international law problem,” Stevenson said, adding that few other countries could bring suits similar to that of Mexico’s.

Mexico accuses the companies of not making it harder for people to remove their serial numbers from guns and or to convert them into automatic firearms.

The complaint seeks an injunction that would make the gun companies "abate and remedy the public nuisance they have created in Mexico," while also funding studies to stop the trafficking of firearms, adding safety features to their firearms, and adopting standards “to reasonably monitor and discipline their distribution systems.”

"We expect to win this case and to require the manufacturers to reform their distribution practices," Shadowen, Mexico's attorney, wrote. "They sell weapons of war.  Their controls on their distribution systems should reflect the reality of the dangers that their products pose."

Saying it faced economic loss and increased health care, correction and law enforcement costs, Mexico also seeks punitive damages and disgorgement of the gun-makers’ profits.

Even the Second Amendment, Mexico says, does not apply in the case.

“This case involves Defendants’ supplying their guns to law-breaking Mexican nationals and others in Mexico," the complaint states. "The cartels have no Second Amendment rights, and the Defendants have no right to supply them."

The National Shooting Sports Foundation, the trade association for the firearms industry, called the lawsuit baseless in a statement released Monday, saying it scapegoated manufacturers who follow state and federal laws and threatened the right to bear arms for Americans. Mexico’s charge of wholesale gun trafficking across the southern border was false. “Patently and demonstrably” so, the group said.

Lawrence Keane, general counsel of NSSF, said guns reach the hands of the cartels after they are stolen from Mexican law enforcement or the military or through illegal imports.

“The Mexican government, which receives considerable aid from U.S. taxpayers, is solely responsible for enforcing its laws — including the country’s strict gun control laws — within their own borders,” Keane said. 

As for why Mexico filed its suit in Boston, Shadowen noted that there are no significant gun manufacturers in Texas or along the border.

"This is a case about, and against, the gun manufacturers," Shadowen wrote. "So we sued them where they are."

Representatives for Barrett did not respond to a request for comment, nor did Smith & Wesson, Glock and Colt.

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