Mexico and the United States suffer the pain of armed violence, which demands immediate strengthening of bilateral cooperation to stop illicit arms trafficking
By Fabián Medina Hernández*
On August 3 last year, in El Paso, Texas, 8 Mexicans among 22 victims, lost their lives in a shooting perpetrated by an American citizen, which was condemned as a hate crime. In addition, on the 10th of January 2020, an 11-year-old boy carried out a shooting at his school in Torreon, Mexico, where he killed his teacher, injured 6 classmates and, later, shot himself. The child used two guns with 0.40 and 0.25 calibers—one of them came from Europe—, none of which had the necessary legal permits. Both cases illustrate, clearly and regrettably, the risk of possessing, trafficking and illicitly selling weapons that end in the wrong hands: organized crime, teenagers and children. Mexico and the United States—neighbor countries, allies, and friends—suffer the scourge of this armed violence, which demands the immediate strengthening of bilateral cooperation to stop illicit arms trafficking.
Indeed, in 2017 Small Arms Survey reported that 50% of the violent homicides worldwide had as a common denominator the presence of firearms. In the global ranking, Mexico placed 11th and the United States, 23rd. Moreover, according to data from the National Statistics, Geography and Informatics Institute (INEGI), in Mexico 5,735 persons lost their lives to armed violence in 2006, representing 54.9% of all homicides that year. By 2018, the situation worsened: 24,349 persons died for the same reason, representing 67.7% of all homicides this year. In addition, according to a study from the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, from 2005 onwards, violence fueled by firearms trafficking was reflected on a decrease in life expectancy in several Mexican states, especially in those with previously high violence rates. Most certainly, these are alarming numbers.
In 2019, the Security Cabinet of the Mexican Government reported that the main points for illicit arms seizures took place in the frontier states of Tamaulipas and Sonora, followed by Baja California, Chihuahua, Nuevo Leon, and Coahuila; all of them, neighboring the US. Moreover, American law enforcement agencies estimate that there are 56,500 gun shops in the United States, most of them in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, the four border states with Mexico, which own 9,000 licensed arms shops. Additionally, in the southern border of the US, there are 22 thousand licenses to sell arms, whether in establishments or on the Internet.
This enormous availability of firearms in the United States -it has 45% of all privately held arms in the world- has resulted in more than 300 million arms in civilian hands; while some 213 to 230 thousand firearms illicitly crossing into Mexico each year, according to data from the Center for American Progress. Not surprisingly, from January 2019 to January 2020, 7,513 firearms were seized in Mexican territory, most of them from the United States and Europe: 70% and 30% respectively.
Among the detainees involved in the murky business of arms trafficking are some Americans that legally acquire arms in gun shops, through straw purchases, and subsequently introduce them to Mexico by land. Indeed, in 2017 the Annals of Internal Medicine magazine published a study that calculated that 22% of all gun owners got their arms without a background check. Also, the Giffords Law Center states that an average of 100 Americans dies by firearms each day, almost 60% of them by suicide, 30% by homicide and the remaining 10% by accidents and other causes.
This grave misappropriation of arms by civilians amounts to 85% of all arms in the world, according to Small Arms Survey. Therefore, in compliance with several international treaties and other multilateral and regional frameworks, Mexico has committed to peace and to limit the production of firearms to authorized institutions restricting their sale for private use, in accordance with the Federal Firearms and Explosives Law—which is currently being reinforced—. Nonetheless, the illicit traffic of firearms along more than 3000 kilometers of border with the greatest producer and exporter of arms and munitions in the world, constitutes an urgent challenge that requires a quick resolution within the framework of the bilateral relationship.
In contrast, the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees to its citizens the right to bear arms, although it does not certainly protect persons with criminal intents nor safeguard illicit arms trafficking. However, when the Federal Assault Weapons Ban (AWB) -which prohibited the civilian use of semiautomatic firearms- expired in 2004, it led to an increase of these kinds of weapons and to the current scenarios where minors in the USA and Mexico shoot their classmates or kill children in mass shootings; all thanks to the laxity of gun regulations. Another challenge that stands out is the fact that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) does not have a national registry of arms, leaving registration to states and counties, as well as to each gun shop.
According to the current legislation of the United States, promulgated in the first decades of the 20th century and updated in 2004, it is legal to manufacture, distribute and bear machineguns, short shotguns, and other lethal weapons, as well as to sell firearms to persons older than 21 years old. It also requests gun shops and individuals to have a federal license and registration that includes the serial number of their arms, and that gun shops check the backgrounds of buyers who do not have a permit to bear firearms.
It is also worth underscoring that recently the control over the international export of firearms and other military equipment was transferred from the Department of State to the Department of Commerce -by changes to the Final Rules for Oversight of Firearms Exports- leaving Congress out of the surveillance of these transactions. This exemplifies the tendency to ease legal regulations, which, in addition to the changes of 2004, has increased civilian access to semiautomatic assault weapons and other military equipment. Moreover, transnational criminal organizations have taken advantage of this situation to amass enormous firepower, which affects both Mexico and its northern neighbors.
Indeed, the Second Amendment was redacted to secure the right to bear arms in order to enable the possibility of self-defense by the citizens. However, the magnitude of the damage caused by small and light arms, especially by semiautomatic assault weapons has generated much public debate about this topic, to a degree that detracts from the original purpose of this main legislation.
Civil society has already pronounced itself on this subject. On September 2019, the Pew Research Center showed in a survey that the percentage of Americans in favor of stricter gun control increased from 52% in 2017 to 60% in 2019. Another of their survey revealed that 3 out of 10 Americans had a firearm; two-thirds of them said that the main reason for having it was safety; 72% confirmed shooting a firearm at least once; and 29% reported having more than five firearms. Among this last group, 72% reported having a handgun; 62%, a rifle; and 54%, a shotgun.
Furthermore, many American politicians -democrats and republicans alike- are in agreement with respect to stricter gun control measures in order to prohibit the sale of firearms to persons with mental issues and under government surveillance. Mexican legislators, committed to a country free of illicit arms, also support these kinds of measures. Thus Mexican and American congresses should have an honest, constructive and regionally-minded debate about restating and reinforcing the prohibition of semiautomatic arms sales and the illicit smuggling of firearms, as well as controlling the final destination of exports, with the support of law enforcement institutions and private companies.
We are convinced that to solve this serious challenge, which afflicts both the Mexican and American governments and societies, it is necessary to create spaces for dialogue and alternatives to arms control. An example of this is the state of Virginia, where eight bills to regulate arms were presented, including some to limit the number of arms purchases per month, establish background checks, arms-free public spaces, among others things, as well as one already approved regarding the seizure of firearms in possession of dangerous or not apt persons (red flag law). It is expected that the remaining seven bills will be approved by the Senate during the first half of 2020.
It is not a matter of exchanging accusations. We have to join efforts, include companies, intermediaries, local and federal governments, legislators and civil society organizations. This is the only way to stop those who, at the expense of our societies, put within reach of irresponsible people and criminals these instruments of death and desolation: firearms.
* Chief of Staff of the Secretary of Foreign Affairs of Mexico