Mexico’s Worst Nightmare: Our Guns

It should comes as no surprise that guns are a huge part of modern day American culture. Over the past century the NRA has went from an organization that used to support gun safety and gun control legislation to a group that stands ardently against any restriction on any American’s ability to purchase or possess guns. Moreover, in today’s election cycle, one of the most popular candidates for the next President of the United States is able to score political points by likening any attempt at modest gun control legislation to the gun confiscation program the Nazis used prior to the Holocaust.

President Obama with President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico. Source: Council on Foreign Relations

The U.S. has a lot of guns, almost enough to arm every man, woman, and child in the country, that’s a problem for Mexico.

The flow of guns into Mexico from the United States has had a significant and well-documented impact on crime and cartels. The Wilson Center for International Scholars estimates that “between 106,700 and 426,729 firearms were purchased annually to be trafficked to Mexico from 2010 to 2012,” with the majority of the weapons seized by border patrol being AK-47s or AR-15 assault rifles. While the Federal Assault Weapons Ban passed in 1994 was in place, the number of guns trafficked annually was roughly 88,000. Though the domestic benefits that the U.S. experienced while the Federal Assault Weapons Ban was in place are controversial, there is a growing body of evidence that confirms that the expiration of the Federal Assault Weapons ban led to a dramatic increase in murders in Mexico, particularly near the border. With this in mind, when considering whether to renew the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, perhaps it’s time to include other nations in our discussions of gun policy.

Mexico’s gun trafficking problem has become particularly egregious with a serious impact on the safety of its citizens. Former President of Mexico, Felipe Calderon indicated back in 2009 the urgency this issue demands, stating “we’ve seized in this two years more than 25,000 weapons and guns, and more than 90 percent of them came from United States, and I’m talking from missiles launchers to machine guns and grenades.” With so many guns flowing into Mexico through its northern border, criminals are getting access to an unprecedented selection of weapons.

Amidst all the violence, there is one clear factor that scholars have been able to identify as a major contributor to the recent rise in murders in Mexico. American assault weapons are turning up in unprecedented numbers during weapons seizures by the Mexican government. A report filed by the Violence Policy Center, “which surveyed guns involved in over 20 firearm trafficking cases along the southwest border, found that 63 percent of the 501 guns involved were assault weapons.” After the Federal Assault Weapons Ban was repealed, gun shops in America were again permitted to sell assault weapons, many of which ended up being linked to homicides in Mexico. Luke Chicoine from the University of Notre Dame found in an analysis of homicides in Mexico that “between 2005 and 2008, the expiration of the AWB has led to at least 2,684 additional homicides in Mexico.” The expiration of the ban itself increased homicides in border states by almost 25 percent.

With the impact that our gun policies have on Mexico, it would seem that they have a direct stake in any action the U.S. takes to curb the production and distribution of guns. Chicoine’s paper gives ground to the argument that a Federal Assault Weapons Ban in the United States would curb violence and prevent a large percentage of murders in Mexico.

The most likely reasons for the recorded increase in homicides has much to do with the escalation of violence between the Mexican police and well-armed cartels. The Washington Post reported one such example back in 2007, when “[a]ssassins blasted Ricardo Rosas Alvarado, a member of an elite state police force, with a blizzard of bullets pumped out of AK-47 assault rifles. The killing, Mexican authorities said, was a panorama of blood, shattered glass and torn metal that brutally showcased the firepower of Mexico’s drug cartels.” The assault weapon used in this incident was smuggled in from the United States and is reflective of a more jarring trend. As gruesome as the example of Ricardo Alvarado may be, this is what has simply become the norm for interactions between the cartels and the police in Mexico, with much of the violence being propagated by assault weapons from the United States. In Mexico, long guns such as assault rifles have a shorter “time-to-crime” than handguns, meaning they are used in crimes more quickly after purchase than other types of weapons. This lends a hand to the widely-cited argument that assault weapons in Mexico are becoming the weapons of choice for cartels.

If the United States has a direct hand in the violent outbreaks in Mexico, a Federal Assault Weapons Ban could serve as a possible foreign policy tool; a gesture of good faith that the U.S. acknowledges how the effects of domestic policy can spill over the border. The only problem that lies here is determining the efficacy that a renewed Federal Assault Weapons Ban would have on abating crime and violence across the border.

Take the example of how the gun laws in different American border states affect Mexican border states. After the expiration of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban in 2004, while California retained a statewide assault weapons ban, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas did not. An empirical analysis by NYU and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst found that relative to Mexican municipalities near California, Mexican municipalities near Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico experienced an additional 40% increase in homicides, directly attributable to the more relaxed gun laws in those American states. Mexican states that border American states without an assault weapons ban simply experience more crime because of the absence of stricter gun laws in American border states. A Federal Assault Weapons Ban across the United States could potentially choke off the supply of guns that could be delivered to cartels in Mexico. In this regard, an assault weapons ban being put in place across the United States could help tamper cartel violence and reduce the volume of gun trafficking across the border.

The implementation of a Federal Assault Weapons Ban warrants a public discussion, but one that includes a fresh perspective on how gun policy relates to American foreign policy. The uphill battle regarding this issue is largely a cultural one about the roles that guns have had and should have in our nation. We must revise the question as a whole. What role should our guns have in other countries as well as in our own?