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January 24, 2024

Mexico’s lawsuit against CT’s Colt and other gunmakers to proceed

SHAHRZAD RASEKH / CT MIRROR Mexico is seeking relief for the alleged economic and societal harm caused by guns trafficked from the U.S. One of the manufacturers is Connecticut-based Colt.

Connecticut-based gunmaker Colt faces more legal battles ahead after an appeals court ruled on Monday that a civil case alleging the company facilitates gun trafficking to Mexico’s drug cartels can move forward.

While a district court in September 2022 argued that Colt and other gunmakers were protected by a 2005 federal immunity law protecting gunmakers from being sued for crimes committed with their guns, an appeals court ruled this week that Mexico’s arguments could meet one of the exemptions in the federal law, potentially allowing Colt to be held liable, even if the damages occurred outside the United States.

“We conclude that the complaint adequately alleges that defendants aided and abetted the knowingly unlawful downstream trafficking of their guns into Mexico,” reads the opinion. “At this stage, though, we must accept all well-pleaded allegations of [Mexico] as true and afford all inferences in [Mexico’s] favor.'”

A spokesperson for Colt said they do not comment on pending litigation.

The move could move Colt and other gunmakers into the legal discovery process, where unveiling of internal documents and depositions is possible, and brings Mexico closer to its goal of holding gunmakers accountable through monetary relief and court mandates that regulate the gun industry further. The other gunmakers named in the suit were Smith & Wesson Brands, Barrett Firearms Manufacturing, Beretta U.S.A. Corp., Glock, Inc., Sturm Ruger & Co. Inc., and Century International Arms, Inc.

“Those two remedies will lead to tremendous reforms in the gun industry and a great decrease in the flow of crime guns across the border,” said Jonathan Lowy, co-counsel for Mexico, in a phone interview. Lowy is also the founder and president of the non-profit Global Action on Gun Violence. “This case is part of my organization’s strategy to reduce gun violence both in the United States and in other countries that are affected by U.S. gun policies.”

Meanwhile, one of the largest gun industry trade groups in the country, based in Connecticut, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, is considering its next steps.

“We respectfully and proudly disagree with today’s decision and are reviewing our legal options. The government of Mexico should spend its time enforcing its own laws and bring Mexican criminals to justice in Mexican courtrooms, instead of scapegoating the firearm industry for their inability and unwillingness to protect Mexican citizens from the cartels,” said Lawrence G. Keane, senior vice president & general counsel at NSSF, in a statement to The Connecticut Mirror.

The group had filed a brief with the court last year before the appellate judges heard arguments, agreeing with the District Court’s interpretation of the federal immunity law.

The lawsuit was originally filed in 2021, and the case was dismissed the following year on the basis of a 2005 federal law protecting gunmakers from being sued for crimes committed with their guns. Mexico filed an appeal, and arguments were heard last year, as the CT Mirror reported in July.

And this week, the Appeals Court disagreed with the lower District Court’s interpretation of the federal immunity law and sent the case back for further proceedings.

The judge’s decision was a win for Connecticut Attorney General William Tong and several other state attorneys general who had filed as friends of the court, arguing that the District Court made an error in not considering whether the complaint provided an exemption to federal immunity law.

But although the Appeals Court stated that Mexico adequately brought its complaint forward and is able to proceed with the lawsuit, the country will still need to prove its allegations.

“Whether plaintiffs will be able to support those allegations with evidence at summary judgment or at trial remains to be seen,” reads the opinion by Judge William Kayatta, from the U.S. Court of Appeals of the First Circuit in Boston, a court whose active judges were all appointed by Democratic presidents, according to political encyclopedia Ballotpedia.

Mexico hopes to get some evidence through the discovery process.

“Obtaining evidence from the gun industry is also an important benefit to this litigation. And we’ve seen in other industries with big tobacco and the opioid industry, that bringing this sort of information to the public light has a great benefit to society,” said Lowy. “There are steps that the defendants could take to try to stop that. We are confident they will not be successful.”

If Colt and the other gunmakers are forced into the discovery process, they could be required to provide internal documents such as marketing materials or staff communications, as was the case in the Sandy Hook and Remington case.

In 2015, three years after the deadly shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, families of the victims sued Remington, the manufacturer of the rifle used by the shooter. The lawsuit alleged that the gunmaker violated state law by intentionally marketing the gun to civilians.

The 2005 federal immunity law would have shielded Remington from any liability, but the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that the alleged violation of state law provided an exception. With the lawsuit moving forward, thousands of Remington’s internal marketing documents were made public through discovery until the case was eventually settled for millions of dollars, avoiding a trial and further discovery.

Pending next steps, whether another appeal or the discovery process, there is limited data on U.S. manufactured guns recovered in Mexico.

Current data from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives shows that over 30,000 firearms recovered in Mexico and submitted to ATF for tracing in 2021 were manufactured in the U.S. Yet, more detailed data about the make of the guns recovered is not publicly available. Mexican military data compiled through information requests by the research and advocacy group, Stop U.S. Arms to Mexico, show that of more than 129,000 guns recovered by the Mexican army in over 10 years, about 8,500, 6%, were identified to be manufactured by Colt.

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