Mexico is suing US gunmakers for thousands of firearms smuggled across the border each year. Can they win?

According to Mexican officials, about half a million US weapons reach Mexico each year; the U.S. Department of Justice found that between 2014 and 2018, approximately 70 percent of firearms recovered in Mexico and submitted for tracing originated north of the border.
Earlier this month, lawyers representing the Mexican government took another step forward in dealing with the epidemic of violence in the country. They filed a lawsuit in federal court in Boston against 7 US gun manufacturers and a gun wholesaler, arguing that they bear some responsibility for the flow of guns into criminal hands in Mexico.
The market for legal weapons is much smaller and more tightly controlled in Mexico than in the United States. The country has only one arms store, and it is run by the military. Prospective buyers must go through rigorous background checks, which require, among other things, proof of employment and a clean criminal record. And yet, more than 25,000 Mexicans were killed by guns in the past year.

Homicides in Mexico began to increase dramatically in the mid-2000s, when the country escalated its war on drugs. But the lawsuit points to another event that he says has contributed to the rise in violence: the 2004 expiration of an assault weapons ban in the United States. The lawsuit alleges that homicides increased at that time, “exactly as the defendants’ increased production, distribution and marketing of their military-grade weapon.”

“Several academic papers have found a strong statistical correlation between the end of the ban on assault weapons and the increased availability of weapons and an increase in gun-related homicides in Mexico,” Alejandro Hope, a Mexico-based security expert. “Is that the only reason the violence in Mexico has increased? No, certainly not. But it’s one of the many drivers.

“The trial shows very clearly that these defendants are not only keenly aware of the diversion of their products south of the border and the resulting carnage, but they are [also] aware of steps that could be taken to alleviate these problems, ”Adam Skaggs, chief attorney and policy director of the Giffords Law Center, a gun control advocacy group not involved in the gun control, told CNN. the pursuit. of these measures, but they have largely taken advantage of their refusal to do anything to solve the problem. “

Lawyers representing gun manufacturers say they are “scapegoats”.

“These are the cartels that criminally abuse firearms illegally imported into Mexico or stolen from the Mexican military and law enforcement,” said Lawrence G. Keane, senior vice president and general counsel of the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), a trade association whose members are among those prosecuted, said in a statement. (A spokesperson for NSSF said the organization was not involved in the lawsuit.)

In a statement, the NSSF also called the allegations “baseless” and insisted that all retail firearms were “sold in accordance with federal and state laws, with an FBI background check and forms. full”.

The trial

The trial has its origins in a shootout that took place north of the border. On August 3, 2019, a gunman shot dead 22 people, including at least eight Mexican nationals, in a Walmart parking lot in El Paso, Texas. (A 23rd victim died nine months later).

Mexican officials and the families of the victims have filed a lawsuit in a state district court against Walmart for not doing enough to protect the victims (Walmart has dismissed the allegations; a trial date is expected in 2022 ). Then the Mexican government set its sights on the gun industry.

“I had a mandate to find legal action to get the Mexican government to do something,” Alejandro Celorio, foreign ministry legal adviser, told CNN. “It all started from ‘let’s do something for El Paso’ to this is huge ‘the negligence of the gun industry is immense’ so let’s do something that tried to solve the big problem.”

Steve Shadowen, one of the plaintiff’s lead attorneys, said in addition to seeking damages, his team is looking to change the way gun manufacturers do business. “We are particularly interested in getting manufacturers to change the way they do business, to strengthen their distribution systems so that they do not continue to supply unlimited quantities of weapons to arms dealers who systematically sell them to buyers. straw and others that traffic to Mexico, ”he told CNN.

Shadowen declined to say how much he claims in damages, but Mexico’s Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard told reporters the country will seek at least $ 10 billion.

The manufacturers named in the litigation are Smith & Wesson, Barrett, Beretta, Century Arms, Colt, Glock, Ruger and the arms wholesaler Witmer Public Safety.

A representative for Glock told CNN that the company’s policy was not to comment on pending litigation, but said it would defend itself “vigorously”. Smith & Wesson, Barret, Beretta, Century Arms, Colt, Ruger and Witmer Public Safety Group did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.

“Hugs not balls”

Since taking office in 2018, the Mexican president has pledged to tackle the epidemic of gun violence in Mexico with “hugs, not bullets,” suggesting a break with the harsh tactics of his predecessors .

But “hugs, not balls” so far hasn’t worked out much. Despite Lopez Obrador’s declarations of “peace and quiet” in the country, the homicide rate remains stubbornly high.

“[Lopez Obrador] seems to see security policy as a by-product of social policy. You’re just giving people jobs and welfare and somehow crime will decrease through some mysterious mechanism, “Hope told CNN.” It didn’t really work out. . ”

Hope said there are practical considerations for the timing of the prosecution – a political environment in the United States that increasingly lends itself to gun control – as well as political considerations. Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard is expected to run for president in 2024, which raises his profile.

“Are there any political motivations? Yes. Does that excuse the gun lobby from facing up to its responsibilities? No, I don’t think so,” Hope said.

Experts say plaintiffs are fighting an uphill battle because of a 2005 U.S. law – the Legal Trade in Arms Protection Act – that protects gun manufacturers from liability when crimes are committed with their products.

Shadowen said he believes the law does not apply to crimes committed outside the United States. “We have consulted with some of the world’s foremost experts on this specific issue, and we are confident that we will win this issue,” he said.

If the case goes to trial, gunmakers could be forced to release years of inside information about marketing practices and what they understood about how their guns fell into criminal hands, he said. Jake Charles, a Second Amendment expert at Duke Law School, told CNN. .

It could also raise awareness of the impacts of US gun policy beyond its borders.

“Much of the gun debate in America has focused on the liability of manufacturers, distributors and sellers for damages that occur in the United States,” said Charles, the legal expert. “This will put on the table the question of how responsible they are – legally, politically or morally – for the weapons that are in the hands of bad actors in Mexico.”

Reporting by Karol Suarez of CNN in Mexico City and reporter Danielle Renwick in New York.

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