Mexico v. Smith & Wesson: Does US Immunity for Gun Manufacturers Apply Extraterritorially?

by William S. Dodge and Ingrid Wuerth
Just Security, August 19, 2021

Earlier this month, Mexico sued six U.S. gun manufacturers, one foreign manufacturer, and a Boston-area wholesaler in federal court in Massachusetts. According to the complaint, the defendants design, market, and sell guns in ways they know will arm Mexican drug cartels. Although Mexico has strict gun laws and prohibits the importation of guns without a permit, it is estimated that more than half a million guns flow from the United States into Mexico each year. During the first five months of 2020, statistics show that nearly half the guns recovered from crime scenes in Mexico were made by the defendant manufacturers. Most of Mexico’s claims are tort claims, including negligence, public nuisance, and defective design, but Mexico also alleges that the defendants have been unjustly enriched and have violated unfair business practices statutes in Connecticut and Massachusetts.

In 2005, Congress acted to immunize gun manufacturers and dealers from liability based on the criminal use of guns. The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), 15 U.S.C. §§ 7901-7903, prohibits bringing in state or federal court any “qualified civil liability action.” That term is defined as a civil action by any person against a gun manufacturer or seller for damages or other relief “resulting from the criminal or unlawful misuse of a qualified product by the person or a third party,” but Congress also created several exceptions including certain actions based on violations of federal or state law. The complaint asserts that PLCAA does not apply “because it bars certain claims against gun manufacturers and distributors only when the injury occurred in the U.S. and the criminal’s misuse of the gun was unlawful under U.S. domestic law” (¶23). Although other experts have suggested that the suit is almost certainly barred by PLCAA, we disagree. The plaintiffs have a strong argument that PLCAA does not prohibit some of their claims, including those brought under Mexican law.


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