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MEXICO CITY — For years, Mexican officials have complained that lax U.S. gun control was responsible for devastating bloodshed in Mexico. On Wednesday, they moved their campaign into American courts, filing a lawsuit against 10 gun companies.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Massachusetts, was the first time that a national government has sued gun makers in the United States, officials said. The suit accuses the companies of actively facilitating the flow of weapons to powerful drug cartels, and fueling a traffic in which 70 percent of guns traced in Mexico are found to have come from the United States.
“For decades, the government and its citizens have been victimized by a deadly flood of military-style and other particularly lethal guns that flows from the U.S. across the border,” the lawsuit reads. The flood of weaponry is “the foreseeable result of the defendants’ deliberate actions and business practices.”
The government cited as an example three guns made by Colt that appear to directly target a Mexican audience, with Spanish nicknames and themes that resonate in Mexico. One of them, a special edition .38 pistol, is engraved with the face of the Mexican revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata and a quote that has been attributed to him: “It is better to die standing than to live on your knees.”
That was the pistol used by a gunman in 2017 to kill the Mexican investigative journalist Miroslava Breach Velducea, the government said. A member of a group linked to the powerful Sinaloa cartel was convicted of her murder last year.
Legal experts questioned the lawsuit’s ultimate chances, given that U.S. federal law guarantees gun manufacturers a strong shield against being sued by victims of gun violence and their relatives. But some said the lawsuit could lend political support to the strengthening of gun regulations in the United States, which are among the loosest in the hemisphere.
“It’s a bit of a long shot,” said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond. “It may just be a way to get the attention of the federal government and Biden and the White House so they can sit down and make a deal.”
Mexico has strict laws regulating the sale and private use of guns, and the nation’s drug trafficking groups often arm themselves with American weapons. The Justice Department found that 70 percent of the firearms submitted for tracing in Mexico between 2014 and 2018 originated in the United States.
“These weapons are intimately linked to the violence that Mexico is living through today,” Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said at a news conference on Wednesday.
The government argues in the lawsuit that American gunmakers knowingly facilitate the sale of arms to criminal groups in Mexico by marketing their wares in ways that appeal to drug traffickers and refusing to put responsible restrictions on sales.
Gunmakers sell to any distributor with a license, the suit says, “despite blazing red flags indicating that a gun dealer is conspiring with straw purchasers or others to traffic defendants’ guns into Mexico.”
For years, Mexico had focused on pressing American officials to crack down on gun smuggling at the border. Smugglers routinely enlist Americans with clean criminal records to buy several guns at a time, often from different shops, and then drive the guns across the border, officials say.
With its move on Wednesday, Mexico is expanding the effort to targeting gun companies themselves. Mexican government officials said they had been closely watching several recent U.S. cases involving gun manufacturers, including the lawsuit brought against Remington by families of the children killed in the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012.
The families are now considering a $33 million settlement offered by the company, after legal proceedings that lasted seven years and, experts say, opened a new path for victims of gun violence to hold manufacturers accountable. The Sandy Hook case took advantage of an exemption written into the federal law protecting gunmakers that allows for litigation against the companies if their marketing practices violate state or federal laws.
But legal experts cast doubt on whether the Mexican government could convince the Massachusetts court that gunmakers had knowingly facilitated the sale of firearms to cartels or had engaged in illegal marketing. Selling to retailers who may have links to criminal groups isn’t necessarily a crime.
“Even if it’s careless, they’re not liable,” said Tim Lytton, a law professor at Georgia State University.
And it will be difficult to show that companies that put Mexican icons on their guns were trying to appeal to cartel hit men, the experts said.
“It’s perfectly legal to have Mexican revolutionary heroes on your gun,” said Eugene Volokh, a law professor at UCLA. “There’s no law that prohibits that.”
In Washington, the White House noted that President Biden has urged Congress to repeal the federal statute that shields gunmakers from lawsuits. “President Biden remains committed to Congressional repeal,” said Michael Gwin, a White House spokesman. “While that law remains on the books, gun manufacturers and distributors should be held accountable — to the extent legally possible — when they violate the law.”
American gun laws have clear links to the ebb and flow of violence in Mexico, experts say. When the U.S. assault weapons ban ended in 2004, the government noted in the suit, gun makers “exploited the opening to vastly increase production, particularly of the military-style assault weapons favored by the drug cartels.”
Soon after, killings in Mexico began to rise, reaching record levels in 2018, when more than 36,000 people were murdered across the country.
The Mexican government is being represented by lawyers from Hilliard Shadowen, a Texas law firm specializing in class-action lawsuits, and by Jonathan Lowy, chief counsel for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, the gun control organization.
The suit was filed the day after Mr. Ebrard, the foreign minister, attended a ceremony commemorating the two-year anniversary of the mass shooting in an El Paso, Texas, Walmart store that killed 23 people, including several Mexican citizens.
Despite President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s campaign promise to stanch the bloodshed by tackling the root cause of violence, a strategy he called “hugs not bullets,” the authorities have so far been unable to make much headway.
Since Mr. López Obrador’s landslide victory three years ago, killings have declined by less than 1 percent. So far this year, more than 16,000 people have been murdered in Mexico, according to government figures.
The companies named in the suit are Smith & Wesson; Barrett Firearms Manufacturing; Beretta U.S.A.; Beretta Holding; Century International Arms; Colt’s Manufacturing Company; Glock, Inc.; Glock Ges.m.b.H; Sturm, Ruger & Co.; and the gun supplier Witmer Public Safety Group, doing business as Interstate Arms.
The companies named in the lawsuit did not immediately respond to requests for comment. But the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the firearm industry association, issued a statement denying accusations that the gun makers had participated in negligent business practices.
“Mexico’s criminal activity is a direct result of the illicit drug trade, human trafficking and organized crime cartels that plague Mexico’s citizens,” said Lawrence G. Keane, the group’s general counsel. He added that the Mexican government “is solely responsible for enforcing its laws — including the country’s strict gun control laws — within their own borders.”
An official from Mexico’s foreign ministry said that the ultimate goal of the suit was getting U.S. gun makers to be more responsible in the sale and marketing of their arms. The suit does not specify how much compensation the government is seeking, but Foreign Ministry officials said they had calculated up to $10 billion in potential damages.
Katie Rogers contributed reporting from Washington.
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