In the fall of 2021, the Mexican government did something unprecedented: It mounted a lawsuit against titans of America’s gun industry. The suit accused major manufacturers including Smith & Wesson, Ruger, and Colt of facilitating cartel violence across the southern border by irresponsibly marketing and distributing their weapons. It was met with a flurry of supportive amicus briefs and a healthy dose of skepticism. The challenge seemed like a long shot, NPR reported at the time, given the special legal immunity granted to the gun industry under the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act. A federal judge dismissed the claim the following year. Mexico appealed — and this week, a panel of the Boston-based 1st Circuit ruled in its favor, resurrecting the groundbreaking suit.
As The Trace’s Champe Barton has reported, the PLCAA provides some of the most sweeping liability protections granted to any industry to date, barring virtually any attempt to sue gunmakers for crimes committed with their weapons. In recent years, however, more people have managed to pierce the shield, using two broad exceptions in the law that allow suits over defective products and, importantly, violating laws “applicable to” the sale or marketing of their products. Domestically, several states have made it easier to sue gun companies by passing “reasonable controls” laws, attendant to the latter exception, which require gun companies to more carefully monitor their marketing and distribution practices.
Mexico’s challenge is based on similar grounds, albeit more complicated since it’s brought by a foreign government. Attorney Jonathan Lowy, whose group Global Action on Gun Violence is representing Mexico in the suit, explained the argument in an interview with The Trace’s Chip Brownlee last week: “We’re arguing that [the PLCAA] 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.” The 1st Circuit echoed Lowy in its ruling, writing that the lawsuit “plausibly alleges a type of claim that is statutorily exempt from the PLCAA’s general prohibition.”
Mexico enforces stringent gun laws, and the only gun store in the country is located in a fortified military base. As The Trace reported in October 2022, law enforcement and border security experts have long recognized that these restrictions — paired with a thriving array of cartels warring for regional power — make Mexico a hot destination for trafficked firearms. Data from Mexico’s Secretariat of National Defense tells a damning story of this interrelation. The data details every firearm recovered by the Mexican military between 2010 and May of 2020, and shows that U.S. firearms manufacturers made up seven out of the top 10 companies whose guns were most frequently seized — Colt, Smith & Wesson, and Ruger among them.
The revival of the lawsuit might be part of a broader interrogation of the global consequences of American gun policies. Per a draft rule obtained by Bloomberg News this week, the Biden administration has a plan to impose some of the tightest restrictions on gun exports in decades, following years of skyrocketing international sales and a growing number of international crimes linked to U.S.-made firearms.
Lowy, who spent more than 20 years advocating for policy reform at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, founded his group with that global perspective in mind. International pressure, he told Brownlee, is part of the solution to gun violence in the U.S. and beyond. “U.S. politics has been so constraining on policy over the last decades,” Lowy said. “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.”
From The Trace
Here’s what we published this week.
Michael D. Anestis has been studying firearm death for nearly 15 years. He says it’s time to change the narrative on risks. Read more →
In its ongoing corruption trial, the gun group is straining to distance itself from the man who led it for more than three decades. Read more →
They include the opening statements from the New York Attorney General’s Office and lawyers for the individual defendants. Read more →
Spotlight on Solutions
From The Trace’s Fairriona Magee:
This week, I spoke to Michael D. Anestis, a researcher and the executive director at the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center, about what needs to happen to get more Americans to safely secure their firearms. According to a study published in 2023, more than half of gun owners keep at least one firearm unlocked and hidden. But in the majority of American homes, an unsecured firearm is more likely to result in an accidental death or suicide than be used in defense against a home invasion.
Anestis explained that many Americans don’t practice safe storage because of decades of messaging by the gun industry emphasizing external threats and the little information available about the risks of unsecured firearms. “Researchers can’t be the singular voice speaking on risks,” he told me. “This has to be a message that comes from multiple channels.”
One of those channels may have just arrived: On Thursday, the White House announced a series of new federal actions to promote safe storage in households, building on initiatives from an executive order by President Joe Biden last year.
The Biden administration’s new directives include a plan for the Department of Education to share a letter to school principals nationwide on the importance of safe storage and strategies to share information with their communities. This will come alongside a communication template for school officials to use when discussing the importance of safe storage with families and parents. There are also plans for the Justice Department to share what the White House is describing as “the most comprehensive guide on safe storage ever released by the federal government,” which will lay out best practices and types of storage devices.
These communication initiatives are exactly what Anestis told me could help change public perception of safe storage. “We need to think about how we can shift the national narrative again,” he told me. “It’s not about threatening people’s rights or saying guns are bad, but being honest about the risks.” You can read the full interview here.
What to Know This Week
It’s been a year since California was rocked by two mass shootings that took place within days of each other. In Half Moon Bay, survivors are rebuilding a sense of community, as some continue searching for permanent housing. In Monterey Park, many have returned to Lai Lai Ballroom, one of the sites attacked, where they’re using dance both to heal and as an expression of defiance. [KQED/The Guardian]
Ahead of his state’s pivotal primary, a New Hampshire gun shop owner explained why he remained undecided about whom to vote for. Overall, he said, he doesn’t “fit on any one side” — and he believes there are many other voters like him in the U.S. [The New York Times]
Over the past three years, many cities have invested in unarmed crisis response programs to answer emergency calls involving mental health crises — an alternative to sending police to the scene, which can end with officers shooting and killing the person in crisis. How do these programs work? [The Appeal]
Eight people were killed and one was injured in a two-day gun rampage in suburban Joliet, Illinois. The suspected shooter died of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound as federal authorities pursued him near San Antonio, Texas. [Chicago Sun-Times]
A federal appeals court upheld an ordinance in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, that requires gun sellers to distribute literature related to firearm safety, suicide prevention, and mental health to customers. [Bloomberg Law/ABC Baltimore]
The odds of falling victim to violent crime, historical data shows, decreases with rising household income. That’s not stopping billionaires from paying for lavish safe rooms — residential units that can withstand a barrage of AR-15 or AK-47 gunfire and come outfitted with luxuries like underground swimming pools or movie theaters. [Mother Jones]
Terrance Farrington Jr., 17, was “loved, not just liked” by everyone at his small private school, his principal told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel — not only students, but also teachers, administrators, custodians, and bus drivers. Farrington, better known as “TJ,” was killed in Plantation, Florida, earlier this month, the victim of a shooting in which three other people were injured. He spent most days cracking jokes, but that didn’t get in the way of his academic life: The 11th-grader was an honor roll student and a star athlete on the football team. A protective older brother to his eight siblings, Farrington “meant everything” to his family, his father told CBS News Miami. “He was a loved kid,” his father continued. “He was full of life.”
“I love the Second Amendment. I think it’s a necessity. But, unfortunately, it’s become a very polarized issue where either you’re all in or you’re all out. And I don’t like the lack of nuance there.”
— New Hampshire gun store owner Ben Beauchemin, a Second Amendment advocate and supporter of reproductive rights, on why he remained undecided about who to vote for in his state’s primary, to The New York Times