By DAMIEN FISHER, InDepthNH.org
A lawsuit brought by the Mexican government linking Sturm Ruger and several other gun makers to illegally trafficked guns is going forward after the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston reversed a lower court ruling to dismiss the case.
Mexico blames gun makers Ruger, Glock, Colt, Smith & Wesson, Beretta USA, Barrett Firearms, and Century International Arms for making guns that appeal to buyers in the drug cartels, and then knowingly turning a blind eye to dealers and distributors who get those guns to Mexico.
The result is hundreds of thousands of military-grade guns flowing to Mexico’s violent cartels, a skyrocketing murder rate, and hundreds of millions in profits for the gun makers, at least. The lawsuit estimates gun makers are pocketing as much as $170 million a year.
Interstate Arms, a Boston-area wholesaler, is also named as a defendant.
Ruger CEO Chris Killoy did not respond to a request for comment. Ruger’s manufacturing facility in Newport is one of the Upper Valley’s largest employers.
The lawsuit was initially dismissed when the gun makers argued the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA) prohibits certain types of lawsuits against manufacturers and sellers of firearms in federal and state courts.
However, the First Circuit Court’s decision, released last week, found that Mexico’s allegations against the gun makers is that they are engaging in illegal activity that is not protected by the PLCAA.
“We think it clear that by passing along guns knowing that the purchasers include unlawful buyers, and making design and marketing decisions targeted towards those exact individuals, the manufacturer is aiding and abetting illegal sales,” the ruling states.
Mexico has some of the strictest gun laws in the world, making it almost impossible for the average citizen to buy a gun legally. There is one gun store in the entire country, and the government issues less than 50 gun permits a year.
Without the gun makers, which account for up to 70 percent of the illegal guns making their way into Mexico, the lawsuit claims the current war on drug cartels would be vastly different.
“(A)rmed with Defendants’ guns, the cartels have aggressively marketed drugs such as fentanyl, destroying and ending lives in and outside of Mexico, including in the U.S. Defendants’ guns are the venom in the snakes that are the drug cartels; without those guns, they could be controlled and stopped,” the lawsuit states.
John Lindsay-Poland, with the Stop U.S. Guns to Mexico Project, said gun makers like Ruger know their firearms are getting into the hands of cartels. The manufacturers have access to the data the ATF collects on guns seized in Mexico, and they are contacted by ATF agents when the guns are seized.
“The scale of trafficking to Mexico is really large and it’s not that hard for the manufacturers to see that trafficking to Mexico,” he said. “The problem is visible to the manufacturers, and they don’t really do anything.”
According to data entered into court records, Ruger guns account for approximately 5,000 to 16,000 of the guns trafficked into Mexico. Lindsay-Poland said makers like Ruger market military-grade weapons, such as the popular AR rifle platforms, that are sought after by criminals.
“The messaging in the marketing is all about the military qualities, and that is what the criminal cartels want,” he said.
Many of the gun makers named in the lawsuit sell guns with easy to remove serial numbers, making it difficult to track their origins.
While Ruger also makes hunting, defense, and other sporting firearms, some of the defendants seem to rely on military-type guns. Century International Arms imports military surplus AK-47 rifles from Eastern European countries, and Barrett makes a .50 caliber long-range, semi-automatic rifle that can be used by snipers, or mounted on a vehicle.
The guns flow from the manufacturers to unscrupulous dealers, and then to gun stores, where they are bought by straw purchasers and trafficked to Mexico. The lawsuit alleges many of the trafficked guns never make it to stores but are simply reported stolen.
“Mexico alleges that defendants engage in conduct — design decisions, marketing tactics, and repeated supplying of dealers known to sell guns that cross the border — with the intent of growing and maintaining an illegal market in Mexico from which they receive substantial revenues,” the ruling states.
The case now heads back to the United States District Court of Massachusetts.
Damien Fisher is a veteran New Hampshire reporter who lives in the Monadnock region with his wife, writer Simcha Fisher, their many children, as well as their dog, cat, parakeet, ducks, and seamonkeys.