The attorneys general of 13 states and Washington DC this week expressed support for a federal lawsuit by the Mexican government that accuses a group of American gun manufacturers of facilitating the trafficking of weapons to criminals in Mexico, fueling gun violence.
In a brief filed in federal court in Massachusetts, the Democratic attorneys general – including those in California, Massachusetts, Minnesota and New York – argued against the defendants’ motion to dismiss the case, saying that a federal law providing legal protection to gun manufacturers does not apply in this case.
“While the law may grant firearms manufacturers some protection, it is not a free pass to knowingly allow their products to land in dangerous hands,” California Attorney General Rob Bonta said in a statement Tuesday.
The group takes particular aim at the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), which protects gun manufacturers from being held liable if their products are used in a crime.
The defendants – among them brands like Smith & Wesson, Colt and Glock – pointed to the law as one argument in an effort to have the case dismissed. But the attorneys general argue the PLCAA would not, in the words of Bonta’s office, “shield the companies from accountability.”
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, in a news release issued Tuesday, asked the court to acknowledge gun manufacturers, dealers and distributors can be held accountable for how their products are marketed or sold.
“It is unacceptable,” Healey said, “for gun manufacturers and distributors to knowingly market their products in a way that facilitates the illegal trafficking of weapons into the hands of dangerous individuals.”
CNN has reached out to the companies named in the lawsuit for comment but has not heard back. A representative from Glock previously told CNN it was company policy not to comment on pending litigation, but said it would “vigorously” defend itself.
In a statement, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a firearms industry trade group, suggested the lawsuit and its targets were misplaced.
“The Mexican government should focus on bringing the Mexican drug cartels to justice in Mexican courtrooms,” said NSSF Senior Vice President and General Counsel Lawrence G. Keane, “not filing a baseless lawsuit in an American court to deflect attention from its disgraceful and corrupt failure to protect its citizens.”
Mexico filed the lawsuit last August, alleging the defendants “design, market, distribute and sell guns in ways” that arm Mexican drug cartels. The companies, the lawsuit claims, are aware of this but do nothing.
The gunmakers, along with a distributor, use “reckless and corrupt gun dealers and dangerous and illegal sales practices that the cartels rely on to get their guns,” the lawsuit contends, and design their products to be “easily modified to fire automatically and to be readily transferable on the criminal market in Mexico.”
The lawsuit says homicides in Mexico declined between 1999 and 2004, when the US had a a ban on assault weapons, but then increased dramatically alongside the defendants’ increase in production and distribution of weapons after the ban expired.
The lawsuit estimated as many as 597,000 guns are trafficked into Mexico annually – an estimated 68% of which are manufactured by the defendants. (Bonta’s office cited a 2020 report by the US Government Accountability Office that said the ATF found 70% of firearms recovered in Mexico between 2014 and 2018 were sourced from the US.)
The defendants’ practices, Mexico claimed, “aid and abet the killing and maiming of children, judges, journalists, police, and ordinary citizens” and have “reduced the life expectancy of Mexican citizens and cost the Government billions of dollars a year.” The lawsuit also said that despite a decline in immigration, the violence causes Mexicans to leave and “seek out security” in the US.
The flow of guns to America’s southern neighbor “is not a natural phenomenon or an inevitable consequence of the gun business or of US gun laws,” the lawsuit said. “It is the foreseeable result of the Defendants’ deliberate actions and business practices.”
The companies filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit in November, arguing in part that Mexico did not ascribe violent crimes being carried out within its borders to the manufacturers themselves, but a series of third parties. They also pointed to the PLCAA, saying the law protects them from liability for their actions conducted within the US.
“Mexico can, of course, impose gun control within its own borders,” the defendants wrote in a memorandum to support its motion. “But in this case it seeks to reach outside its borders and punish firearms sales that are not only lawful but constitutionally protected in the United States.”
Lawsuit is valid, US state AGs argue
Mexico’s initial complaint argued PLCAA did not apply in this case, since the injuries in question occurred in Mexico and not the US. However, in their brief this week, the state attorneys general argued that PLCAA – even if it applied to actions that occurred outside the US – would not protect the companies.
The brief argues federal statutes cannot override a state’s power in areas where it traditionally has authority, like consumer protection laws.
Additionally, while it is intended to prevent gun manufacturers from being held liable for the actions of third parties, PLCAA does not protect them “when their own conduct violates laws that regulate the sale and marketing of firearms,” the brief says.
“Mexico’s lawsuit alleges that the defendants themselves knowingly violated common law duties and statutes applicable to the sale or marketing of firearms,” the brief says. “PLCAA is not, accordingly, a valid defense to Mexico’s lawsuit.”
Alejandro Celorio, legal adviser for Mexico’s ministry of foreign affairs, told CNN en Español that the lawsuit does not attribute killings or injuries to the gunmakers or distributors themselves, but seeks to hold them accountable for “negligence in their commercial practices” and a “lack of caution” that violates US state and federal laws.
“The legal immunity with which these companies are protected is not definitive, it’s not complete,” he said. “It has some cracks that we are going to use to launch our lawsuit.”
Other stakeholders have indicated their support, too, including the countries of Antigua and Barbuda and Belize. Attorneys for the countries also filed an amicus brief saying unlawful gun trafficking out of the US has impacts throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.
A coalition of US gun violence prevention organizations like Everytown for Gun Safety and the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence similarly filed an amicus brief, they said in a joint statement.
“As this case shows, the impact of irresponsible gun industry practices can have devastating effects on communities – whether in the U.S. or abroad,” Alla Lefkowitz, senior director of affirmative litigation at Everytown, said in the news release. “No industry should be able to operate with impunity, and we’ll continue to fight on every front to hold reckless actors in the industry accountable for the harm they cause.”
Keane of the NSSF, however, insisted in an interview with CNN en Español that the PLCAA does protect members of the industry, even in this case.
“The manufacturers are not legally responsible for the subsequent criminal misuse of their legally sold, non-defective firearms by remote third persons over whom those manufacturers have no control,” he said. “And this lawsuit ignores the fact that the firearms only end up in Mexico through the criminal actions of third parties.”
CNN’s Amanda Watts, Shawn Nottingham, Karol Suarez and Danielle Renwick contributed to this report. CNNE’s Abel Alvarado and Florencia Trucco contributed to this report.