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Why Mexico Is Right to Sue U.S. Gun Companies

The lawsuit over drug cartel violence could be part of a bigger change on guns.

By , a journalist based in Mexico specializing in crime and drugs.
Assault rifles are displayed for sale at Blue Ridge Arsenal in Chantilly, Virginia, on Oct. 6, 2017.
Assault rifles are displayed for sale at Blue Ridge Arsenal in Chantilly, Virginia, on Oct. 6, 2017. JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

Researching a book on gun trafficking, I asked an export broker in the legal part of the arms trade if he was concerned that his assault rifles could end up in the hands of murderers. He said he wasn’t worried about getting in trouble; his sales, he assured me, followed national and international laws. I asked again: Even if he wasn’t nervous about legal consequences, was he bothered ethically if his weapons ended up on the wrong trigger fingers? He was silent for a moment before answering with a confident “no.”

I’ll give him credit for his honesty. But this same attitude, perhaps expressed with less vehemence, can be found among many in the weapons industry. The argument is that if producers, importers, and sellers obey the law, then it is not their responsibility what is ultimately done with their pistols, rifles, or bullets.

This concept, however, has just been challenged by an unprecedented lawsuit filed by the Mexican government on Aug. 4 in a U.S. federal court in Massachusetts. The complaint names key companies in the U.S. firearms industry and argues they are complicit in a vast iron river of guns flowing over the southern U.S. border and wielded by Mexican cartel gunmen to commit mass murder there. The companies, the lawsuit argues, deliberately marketed and distributed their products to meet the gangsters’ preferences for certain types and specifications of guns.

Researching a book on gun trafficking, I asked an export broker in the legal part of the arms trade if he was concerned that his assault rifles could end up in the hands of murderers. He said he wasn’t worried about getting in trouble; his sales, he assured me, followed national and international laws. I asked again: Even if he wasn’t nervous about legal consequences, was he bothered ethically if his weapons ended up on the wrong trigger fingers? He was silent for a moment before answering with a confident “no.”

I’ll give him credit for his honesty. But this same attitude, perhaps expressed with less vehemence, can be found among many in the weapons industry. The argument is that if producers, importers, and sellers obey the law, then it is not their responsibility what is ultimately done with their pistols, rifles, or bullets.

This concept, however, has just been challenged by an unprecedented lawsuit filed by the Mexican government on Aug. 4 in a U.S. federal court in Massachusetts. The complaint names key companies in the U.S. firearms industry and argues they are complicit in a vast iron river of guns flowing over the southern U.S. border and wielded by Mexican cartel gunmen to commit mass murder there. The companies, the lawsuit argues, deliberately marketed and distributed their products to meet the gangsters’ preferences for certain types and specifications of guns.

The Mexican government estimates more than two million firearms have been trafficked over the Rio Grande in the last decade. In that time, there have been more than 250,000 murders in Mexico, with more than two-thirds of them involving guns. The violence also includes firefights between hundreds of cartel thugs and soldiers, resulting in mass graves with hundreds of corpses. Thousands have fled the bloodshed to seek asylum in the United States.

The lawsuit names defendants including Barrett Firearms Manufacturing, whose .50-caliber rifles are used by cartel gunmen against Mexican security forces, and Century Arms, a U.S. importer of Kalashnikovs, which have been traced to Mexican crime scenes. (Full disclosure: My work on gun trafficking is cited in the lawsuit.) “For decades, the [Mexican] government and its citizens have been victimized by a deadly flood of military-style and other particularly lethal guns,” it says in the suit. “This flood is not a natural phenomenon.”

The lawsuit shines a much-needed spotlight on gun trafficking and legal weapons sales from the United States to Mexico.

The lawsuit demands the companies take action to stop the trafficking, including to “monitor and discipline their distribution systems” and pay compensation to Mexico. While the amount is not specified in the suit, an official said that the cost to Mexico, including for added security, funerals, and wider economic damage, could be $10 billion. “The cost of a human life is invaluable,” said Alejandro Celorio Alcántara, a legal advisor at the Mexican Foreign Ministry.

The U.S. National Shooting Sport Foundation quickly called the suit “baseless,” and said it was a threat to rights enshrined in the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1791. “The Mexican government is responsible for the rampant crime and corruption within their own borders,” said Lawrence Keane, the organization’s senior vice president and general counsel. The 2005 U.S. Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act also shields gun companies from being held liable for crimes committed with their products.

The lawsuit is certainly a difficult case to pursue. But it is a solid strategy by the Mexican government that could help move the dial on this contentious issue. It coincides with various suits filed in the United States against gun companies. In another case, families of the children murdered in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut sued the maker of the AR-15-style rifle used in the attack. In July, lawyers for the now bankrupt Remington Arms Company offered $33 million to settle the suit.

This shows that such legal actions can succeed. They could also have a cumulative effect on practices in the gun industry and help stop firearms reaching the wrong hands. Legal actions have a history of forcing other U.S. industries to change their practices, from the 1998 agreement with tobacco companies to the ongoing cases against pharmaceutical companies for their role in the opioid crisis.

Furthermore, the lawsuit shines a much-needed spotlight on gun trafficking and legal weapons sales from the United States to Mexico, and how it fuels fighting that often resembles armed conflict. Since it was filed, it has already generated a large amount of media coverage, and this could continue as the case makes its way through court. This could also help put pressure on the White House and the Congress to move on the issue.

U.S. President Joe Biden has promised action on gun violence amid a worrying rise in homicides committed with firearms in the United States. Congress could pass a law requiring universal background checks for gun purchases, which would close a loophole often used by cross-border gun runners. The U.S. government could crack down on straw buyers—people with clean records who are paid to buy firearms for criminals. Such actions could reduce the trafficking of guns into U.S. cities as well as over the southern border.

Other actions could include extended background checks on buying .50-caliber rifles or on buying larger quantities of Kalashnikovs or AR-15s. If the gun companies say they are against trafficking, they should support such measures.

The Mexican government is not challenging Americans’ right to bear arms but only how guns can go to criminals who are destabilizing a country.

Obviously, Mexico also needs to urgently battle the corruption and poverty that fuels the violence. On both sides of the border, the issue of the drug trade itself and how it generates billions of dollars for criminals needs to be addressed. But this doesn’t take away the responsibility of the United States and its firearms industry to take basic measures to stop such large-scale gun running.

I also talked to a U.S. gun seller who was genuinely concerned that the firearms he sells may be going to cartels. He said he vigilantly contacted the authorities when he noticed something suspicious—and was frustrated by the lack of response. Hopefully, such voices in the industry can prevail.

The Mexican government is not challenging Americans’ right to bear arms but only how guns can go to criminals who are destabilizing a country. If no action is taken, it is terrifying to think of millions of more guns flowing south over the next decade, hundreds of thousands of additional victims, and their weeping families.

Ioan Grillo is a journalist based in Mexico specializing in crime and drugs. His latest book is Blood Gun Money: How America Arms Gangs and Cartels. Twitter: @ioangrillo

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