A federal appeals panel in Boston ruled on Monday that a $10 billion lawsuit filed by Mexico against U.S. gun manufacturers whose weapons are used by drug cartels can proceed, reversing a lower court that had dismissed the case.
The decision, which is likely to be appealed, is one of the most significant setbacks for gunmakers since passage of a federal law nearly two decades ago that has provided immunity from lawsuits brought by the families of people killed and injured by their weapons.
Mexico, in an attempt to challenge the reach of that law, sued six manufacturers in 2021, including Smith & Wesson, Glock and Ruger. It contended that the companies should be held liable for the trafficking of a half-million guns across the border a year, some of which were used in murders.
In September 2022, a Federal District Court judge threw out the suit, ruling that the law prohibits legal action brought by foreign governments.
But Judge William J. Kayatta Jr., an Obama appointee who serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, writing for a unanimous majority, revived the lawsuit. The ruling said that plaintiffs had made a “plausible” argument that their case was “statutorily exempt” from the immunity shield.
In its appeal, lawyers for Mexico, assisted by U.S. gun control groups, claimed that the companies “aided and abetted the knowingly unlawful downstream trafficking” of their guns into Mexico.
Gun violence is rampant in Mexico despite its near-blanket prohibition of firearms ownership.
About 70 to 90 percent of guns trafficked in Mexico originated in the United States, according to Everytown Law, the legal arm of the gun control group founded by the former mayor of New York Michael R. Bloomberg.
Gun control advocates hailed the decision on Monday by a three-judge panel, describing it as a milestone in holding the gun industry accountable.
“Not only did the court recognize the right of another country to sue U.S. gun companies; it also pierced the unfair legal shield that gun companies have been hiding behind,” said Jonathan Lowy, a lawyer based in Maryland who serves as Mexico’s co-counsel on the case and is a founder of Global Action on Gun Violence.
Those backing the gun industry criticized the ruling.
“We respectfully and proudly disagree with today’s decision and are reviewing our legal options,” said Larry Keane, a top official with the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the gun industry’s main trade association.
“The government of Mexico should spend its time enforcing its own laws and bring Mexican criminals to justice and Mexican courtrooms, instead of scapegoating the firearm industry for their inability and unwillingness to protect Mexican citizens from the cartels,” he said.