Mexican Lawsuit Against U.S. Gun Firms to Proceed

March 2024
By Chad Lawhorn

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit has revived Mexico’s $10 billion lawsuit against U.S. gun manufacturers, which previously was dismissed by a lower court.

Alejandro Celorio Alcántara, legal adviser to the Mexican Foreign Ministry, speaks during a press conference in August 2021 when Mexico announced its suit against U.S.-based manufacturers and sellers of weapons used by organized crime groups in Mexico. (Photo by Luis Barron/Eyepix Group/Future Publishing via Getty Images)The suit accuses six companies, including Smith & Wesson and Sturm, Ruger & Co., of negligent practices that facilitate the trafficking of more than 500,000 guns annually to Mexican drug cartels, exacerbating gun violence in that country.

Despite the broad immunity granted to gun-makers by the U.S. Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, the Boston-based appeals court unanimously found that Mexico’s lawsuit “plausibly alleges a type of claim that is statutorily exempt from the [act’s] general prohibition,” Reuters reported on Jan. 22.

Alejandro Celorio Alcántara, the lawyer leading the lawsuit for the Mexican government, told El País in an interview on Jan. 25 that the decision to revive the case was “historic.”

“Not only will we have the opportunity to present our evidence, we will be able to ask the defendant companies to share their evidence with us…. That’s the kind of information we’re going to get in litigation. It could be a gold mine,” he said.

The appeals court decision overturns a lower court’s 2022 dismissal, which found that foreign governments cannot sue under U.S. law. It marks a significant legal advancement for Mexico, supported by U.S. gun control advocates.

Mexico has argued that the actions of gun manufacturers have contributed directly to the violence within its national borders.

The lawsuit seeks financial damages and aims to hold these manufacturers accountable for their role in international arms trafficking and related harms, such as declining investment and economic activity in Mexico​​.

Other companies named in the suit are Beretta USA, Barrett Firearms Manufacturing, Colt’s Manufacturing Co., and Glock Inc. All have denied wrongdoing.

The U.S. law typically shields gun manufacturers from liability for the improper use of their products. The gun companies have argued that Mexico does not have legal standing to sue. (See ACT, September 2022.)

The lower court agreed with the immunity argument, ruling that the law prohibits legal action brought by foreign governments. The appeals court determined that the law was designed only to protect lawful firearms-related commerce and not the problem Mexico identified, namely, companies accused of aiding and abetting illegal gun sales by knowingly facilitating the trafficking of firearms into the country.

According to Celorio Alcántara, the gun-makers unsuccessfully attempted to distance themselves from the issue of gun trafficking by describing the scale and scope of supply chains and the number of individuals involved in those processes.

Mexico, on the other hand, focused on the U.S. law and why it did not apply. “We pointed out that [it] has no extraterritorial effect, that there is a direct violation of the machine gun export ban, and that the defendant companies violate state and federal laws,” Celorio Alcántara said.

The decision to revive the case could pave the way for other litigation against gun manufacturers on similar grounds, potentially affecting how firearms are marketed, distributed, and regulated within the United States and internationally.

“Other countries will surely be able to analyze whether this decision…gives them a window to sue, such as Jamaica, Canada, or other countries that are suffering from the same problem,” Celorio Alcántara said.

As the Mexican case proceeds, it likely will encounter more legal and political hurdles given the power of the gun lobby, contentious gun control debates in the United States, and intricate legal arguments surrounding the law.