Mexico’s cases against U.S. gun industry move forward

Published 27 March 2024

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This week, an Arizona federal court allowed Mexico's lawsuit against U.S. gun dealers to move forward. The court found that Mexico's complaint plausibly alleges that defendants "knew or should have known" their firearms would be used by violent cartels.

Mexico is suing five Arizona gun shops for allegedly aiding and abetting gun trafficking across the border. The sovereign country argues that these merchants are conducting negligent sales which contribute to gun trafficking and violence.

Mexico estimates that 200,000 guns are smuggled from the U.S. every year. As a result, the Latin American country has seen over 30,000 homicides annually over the past six years. According to Mexico, 70% of guns used in these killings can be traced back to U.S. gun shops.

The defendants had requested the court to dismiss the case on the basis of immunity from suit. In an unprecedented move, the court rejected their argument. The case is now primed for trial and Mexico is entitled to “discovery”, meaning it can request company records from the defendants and question industry executives under oath.

This decision comes on the heels of a 22 January decision in a U.S. appeals court in Massachusetts where, in separate proceedings, Mexico prevailed against gun manufacturers seeking to dismiss a similar case.

Researcher León Castellanos-Jankiewicz, who has been following the case closely, says: "By siding with Mexico on a number of counts, both courts are signalling that the claims brought forward are legitimate and justiciable. In other words, they are concluding that Mexico is entitled to prove its allegations at trial." 

Castellanos-Jankiewicz adds that these rulings are mutually reinforcing because they intervene at different yet complementary stages of the supply chains to seek accountability for negligent gun sales. "Mexico’s actions are therefore doing away with the long-held assumption that the U.S. gun industry is untouchable."

The Arizona court made two important points. Firstly, the court concluded that there was a sufficient link between the defendants' allegedly wrongful conduct and Mexico's claims. Second, it found that the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), which shields the gun industry from some lawsuits, does not operate in this case.

PLCAA has long insulated the gun industry from litigation, leading to an accountability deficit in the U.S. and lack of access to justice for victims of gun violence there. Yet, the court accepted Mexico's premise that the defendant stores engage in complicity with illicit actors trafficking arms, and PLCAA cannot be invoked.

"In Europe, similar laws protect the arms industry and prevent victims from accessing the courts" continues Castellanos-Jankiewicz. "This accountability deficit in Europe results from secrecy laws, deficient reporting, restrictive access to information for arms exports and limited judicial review of state policy decisions relating to arms trade." These challenges were outlined in a law clinic memorandum which was authored by students of the University of Amsterdam Faculty of Law under Castellanos-Jankiewicz's supervision last year. 

Arms trafficking has become a serious threat in many regions, including Europe, but it does not feature highly in the multilateral or political agenda. "Mexico’s cases show that it’s possible to hold the arms industry accountable." 

Read more
El País quotes researcher León Castellanos-Jankiewicz in their news article on an Arizona court ruling that Mexico's lawsuit against U.S. gun shops and distributors can move forward [in Spanish]

In the op-ed ‘The armor of the European arms industry’ for Spanish newspaper El Pais, researcher León Castellanos-Jankiewicz discusses the lack of accountability for the European arms industry.

During their research for the Amsterdam International Law Clinic, UvA law students find that victims of gun violence in Europe face various challenges in accessing justice.

León Castellanos-Jankiewicz and Kaya van der Horst's write a piece for Just Security on 'Ensuring Access to Courts for Gun Victims: The Case for Repealing PLCAA'.

Listen: León’s interview on BBC World Service, Can Mexico win its battle with US gun companies? ‘The Inquiry’, March 7, 2024, presented by Charmaine Cozier and produced by Jill Collins

Watch: Transnational Civil Litigation and Corporate Liability

Dr León Castellanos-Jankiewicz