Mexico is suing US gunmakers in a bid to stop weapons trafficking

American guns regularly wind up in the hands of Mexican drug cartels

Photo collage of a Colt brand Emiliano Zapata golden gun slamming down on a gavel block
(Image credit: Illustration by Julia Wytrazek / Getty Images)

An international battle over firearms is being renewed, as a U.S. federal appeals court ruled on Jan. 22 that Mexico can sue a group of American gun manufacturers. The $10 billion lawsuit claims that these manufacturers are contributing to an epidemic of cartel violence in Mexico by helping arm drug kingpins with American-made guns. 

The lawsuit was initially brought against the United States in August 2021. At the time, many described it as a long shot bid to tamp down the flow of guns, and it was dismissed by a U.S. district court the next year on a legal technicality. The Mexican government appealed, and Boston's 1st Circuit Court of Appeals revived the lawsuit, claiming the suit was exempt from this technicality.

Now that the lawsuit has risen from the dead, how much of a case does Mexico have, and how far will the legal proceedings go? And if Mexico were to win the case, what would the ripple effects be on both sides of the border?

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What are the facts of the case?

The lawsuit pits the Mexican government against six manufacturers of firearms in the U.S., including major brands such as Glock, Ruger and Smith & Wesson. Attorneys for Mexico argue that these companies "aided and abetted the knowingly unlawful downstream trafficking" of their products into Mexican territory and that the companies should be liable for crimes committed by Mexican gangs using those guns. 

The case was dismissed in 2022 due to a law known as the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA). This federal law prevents gun manufacturers and distributors from being held liable for the "misuse of their products by others." It was ruled that, as a result of this law, Mexico had no legal standing to sue American gun companies. 

Mexico appealed, arguing that the law only shielded gun manufacturers from incidents that happen in the United States. The 1st Circuit Court agreed, writing that Mexico's lawsuit is "statutorily exempt" from the PLCAA. An appeal from the gun manufacturers is expected. 

How does the U.S. gun industry contribute to gun violence in Mexico?

Around 70% to 90% of guns recovered by the Mexican government originated in the United States, according to data cited by The New York Times. Mexico also claimed in its lawsuit that the gunmakers it is suing generate around $170 million annually from the illegal sales of these guns to Mexico. 

Mexico's Secretariat of National Defense has documented a look at the manufacturers of these weapons and how they are embedded in Mexican cartels. This data "[tells] a damning story of iconic American gunmakers' involvement in a decade of Mexican bloodshed," The Trace said. Between 2010 and 2020, the Mexican government recovered nearly 125,000 weapons from the cartels, including "machine guns, grenade launchers and tens of thousands of pistols and rifles," The Trace also said.

Of the 10 gunmakers whose firearms are most seized by the Mexican government, according to the Secretariat of National Defense's data, U.S. companies comprise seven of them. Topping the list was Colt, which had more than 8,500 firearms seized by Mexican authorities. According to the lawsuit, Colt even specifically manufactures a trio of specialty pistols, the El Jefe, El Grito and the Emiliano Zapata 1911, which are gold-plated and coveted by cartel bosses as status symbols. Winchester, Smith & Wesson and Remington rounded out the top four. 

"There is a lot of cooperation between the U.S. and Mexico in terms of trying to identify and track this arms trafficking," NPR said. Any incident of gun violence, whether it be a small crime or cartel shoot-out, is monitored by the government. 

What happens next?

Gunmakers and the firearms industry have decried the revival of Mexico's lawsuit. "We respectfully and profoundly disagree with today's decision and are reviewing our legal options," Larry Keane, an official with the National Shooting Sports Foundation trade group, said to the Times. He added that Mexico was "scapegoating the firearm industry for their inability and unwillingness to protect Mexican citizens from the cartels." It is unclear, though, when any appeal from the gunmakers would be heard in court.

In 2022, the attorneys general of 13 states expressed support for Mexico's lawsuit. California Attorney General Rob Bonta said the gunmakers needed to be held "accountable for their contributions to gun violence in Mexico." Belize and the island nation of Antigua and Barbuda also filed amicus briefs supporting Mexico's lawsuit. 

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