The history of U.S. gun-control efforts is largely dispiriting. Yes, there have been some examples of progress, such as the spread of “red flag” laws, which allow state courts to temporarily disarm individuals who are considered a threat. At the federal level, though, the gun lobby has long exercised an effective veto. Just last month, Republicans in the Senate blocked a bill that would have banned assault weapons and introduced universal background checks for gun purchases. Over the years, even certain legislative successes—such as the 1994 federal ban on assault weapons—have been followed by terrible backward steps, including the 2004 sunsetting of the 1994 ban, and the 2005 passage of legislation that shielded gunmakers from civil suits arising from mass shootings and other bloody crimes carried out with their products.
The gun lobby promoted this legislation, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (P.L.C.A.A.), in response to fears that the firearms industry might suffer the same fate as the tobacco industry, which, in a 1998 legal settlement, had finally been held to account for decades of marketing deadly products and trying to hide their harmful effects. Chicago, New York, and other cities had sued gun manufacturers and dealers for knowingly engaging in reckless and harmful behavior. Responding to these threats, Congress created and passed a legal shield for the gun industry, which for almost twenty years has proved largely impermeable.
Finally, there is a dent in the shield. Two years ago, the government of Mexico, a country plagued by gun violence—much of which is carried out by weapons trafficked from the United States—filed a lawsuit against seven U.S.-based gun manufacturers, accusing them of using “reckless and corrupt gun dealers and dangerous and illegal sales practices that the cartels rely on to get their guns,” designing weapons that “can be easily modified to fire automatically,” and ignoring guidelines from the U.S. government and courts “to prevent this illegal trade.” A lower court initially dismissed the suit, saying that the P.L.C.A.A. restrictions applied to lawsuits filed by sovereign countries, as well as by American individuals and organizations. But a couple of weeks ago a panel of three judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, in Boston, ruled that the suit can move forward. “This is the first case brought by a sovereign nation against the gun industry, and now it’s the first case where a court has upheld the right of a sovereign nation to bring a case,” Jonathan Lowy, the founder of the public-interest group Global Action on Gun Violence, told me. [Continue reading…]