American gun politics and policy have sway far beyond our borders. U.S. guns fuel cartel violence in Mexico, find their way to crime scenes in Canada, and are contributing to a rising gun violence epidemic in the Caribbean. Despite this global dimension, the influence hasn’t run in the other direction.
Global Action on Gun Violence hopes to change that. GAGV and its founder, longtime gun reform advocate and attorney Jonathan Lowy, want to use international pressure as a lever to change U.S. gun policies. They’re doing so through courts — both inside and outside the U.S. — and through human rights proceedings in international bodies.
GAGV is representing the government of Mexico in two lawsuits against U.S. gun manufacturers and gun dealers, handling a suit against gunmaker Smith & Wesson in Canadian court, and bringing a landmark case before the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, which argues that U.S. gun policy violates its human rights obligations.
I spoke with Lowy, who spent more than two decades battling the gun industry and advocating for policy reform at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence before founding GAGV in 2022, to talk through his strategy and how he believes it could affect America’s gun violence epidemic.
Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Chip: How did Global Action on Gun Violence come about?
Jonathan Lowy: Ultimately, I was frustrated by the lack of progress and the limits of boldness and imagination in U.S. gun violence prevention efforts. The violence in the U.S. was getting worse. The Protection of Lawful Commerce and Arms Act was enacted, which made it much more difficult to sue the gun industry, which was one way that we made progress when Congress wasn’t taking action. And the Supreme Court was making Second Amendment law much more restrictive.
And then I began working with the government of Mexico, which decided to bring a lawsuit against major gun manufacturers. It’s the first country in the world to bring a lawsuit against the gun industry. It was an example of the sort of bold action that you can get working outside of the U.S.
How U.S. Guns Drive Cartel Violence in Mexico
I think policymakers are much less constrained by pro-gun politics outside the U.S. That led me to decide that pressure from the international community was a much-needed part of the solution to gun violence, both in the U.S. and around the world. That’s what I wanted to dedicate the rest of my career to. So I left Brady and created GAGV.
How does GAGV’s strategy differ from other organizations focused on gun reform?
First, to be clear, the work that’s being done by domestic U.S. groups is extremely important and an integral part of gun violence prevention. But most of what GAGV is doing is different.
For one, working with countries, people, and organizations outside of the U.S. — that’s unique. We’ve registered as a foreign agent for Mexico to enable us to more broadly represent them. That’s not been done by any other group.
We’ve testified in Organization of American States events, before the United Nations on human rights action, and before the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights to hold that U.S. gun policy violates international human rights law. None of that has been done by other gun violence prevention groups. Litigating the only lawsuit brought outside of the U.S. against a U.S. company [in Canada], that hasn’t been done by other groups. All of that is unique.
We filed a brief in the Supreme Court in the Rahimi case, arguing that the Supreme Court’s Second Amendment precedents in Heller and Bruen were wrongly decided and need to be reversed. None of the other major gun violence prevention groups argue that, though I think they probably agree with us. That’s not going to happen with this court. To make it happen in the future when we have a different court, there needs to be some people who are making that point vocally now, and that’s what we’re doing.
The approach we’re taking is different — I think bolder.
Some of the litigation that you’re bringing is in U.S. courts. And then some in international bodies. What can you do differently between those two venues?
There’s a bunch of differences. Let me give you concrete examples.
We represent the government of Mexico in two [U.S.] lawsuits, one of them against manufacturers, the other against certain gun dealers, both for their role in contributing to gun trafficking across the border to the cartels. And in those cases, we’re arguing that [the Protection of Lawful Commerce and Arms Act] does not apply to cases such as this, where the harm was caused abroad. And we’re also arguing that PLCAA, even if it’s applied, does not bar the cases because there’s illegal conduct. We’re seeking to have the manufacturers sell and distribute guns in responsible ways that hinder gun trafficking. If that were to happen, the U.S. would be an even greater beneficiary than Mexico, because while Mexico is subject to this flood of crime guns as a result of trafficking and reckless gun industry practices, the U.S. is even more subject to those harms.
Then we have a case in Canada with Smith & Wesson. But there, PLCAA simply doesn’t apply because the case was brought outside of the U.S., and therefore you don’t have to deal with that impediment. The argument there is that Smith & Wesson could and should make guns that are personalized, like smart guns or guns with internal locks that children can’t use and criminals on the black market would not be able to fire. If we’re successful, that would change Smith & Wesson’s practices. And the U.S. would be the greatest beneficiary, even though that takes place in Canada.
And then we have a human rights action: We filed Oliver v. USA in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. That involves Joaquin Oliver, who was killed in the Parkland high school shooting. That shooter was a 19-year-old who had this extraordinary documented history of dangerous and bizarre behavior and mental health issues, none of which prohibited him from buying a gun under United States law. He passed a background check. Yet it’s insane that he should have been allowed to buy a gun. That case is against the government, not against the gun industry. And that’s seeking a decision that U.S. gun policy violates human rights.
With the Oliver v. USA case, what could the actual outcomes of a case like that be?
If an international body within the Organization of American States, which the U.S. is a major player in, were to find that the U.S.’s gun policy violates its human rights obligations, that would put a lot of pressure on the U.S. to do what the rest of the world has done and reasonably regulate guns. The Inter-American Commission does not have enforcement authority on U.S. policymakers. So you’re not going to get an order from the commission that demands Congress enact strong gun laws. But it will be an extremely powerful pressure point.
If the U.S. were to disregard this ruling by a completely legitimate and respected international body, an organization in which the U.S. actively participates, it makes it very difficult for the U.S. to have a voice on human rights and other international and foreign policy issues around the world. It puts pressure on any administration, regardless of their politics. Any administration is going to have a foreign policy agenda of some sort that they’re going to want to pursue. And you need to get your own house in order if you want to do that.
How could an international organization like that influence things on the ground here?
The United States has not felt that sort of pressure before. And that pressure goes beyond U.S. politics. We feel that U.S. politics has been so constraining on policy over the last decades — constraining by preventing us from having the policies that the rest of the world has shown can end violence, but also constraining the imagination of what’s possible.
If the U.S. had the sort of vetting and licensing registration that you had in other countries, [the Parkland shooter] would not have been able to get a gun. And yet these are policy solutions that for the most part we don’t talk about, certainly for federal legislation. So I think that’s an example of how we really need to open our imagination.
And it’s also really important because one of the greatest, perhaps the most dangerous, foes that we face in the gun violence prevention movement is hopelessness. It’s a feeling that nothing can make this problem better. If you open your imagination to look at what the rest of the world does, you realize it’s not hopeless at all. If you just have sensible policies that we don’t talk about much, the Parkland shooter wouldn’t have had a gun at all. And we actually could solve gun violence.
To me, that’s a critical part of this international perspective. You need to look at the perspective of people who are completely outside of this bizarre world that we’re in in the U.S., where we’ve all sort of come to terms with the notion that gun rights are more important than human rights. And, you know, we’re sort of nibbling at the edges, but that’s just absolutely wrong. And once you step out of the U.S., you realize that.