More than 53,000 people have been murdered in Mexico in the last six years—most of them by a variety of pistols, rifles, and assault weapons owned by Mexican drug cartels. While the exact number of firearms in circulation in Mexico eludes everyone, we know tens of thousands are seized every year by Mexican authorities.
These facts and figures might lead one to believe that it’s easy for cartels to buy or otherwise acquire guns in Mexico. In fact, Mexico has some of the strictest gun control laws on the entire planet—as well as one of the planet’s highest annual death tolls as a result of gun violence.
After the tragic July 20th shooting at an Aurora, Colorado movie theater during a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises,” no time was wasted by individuals on both sides of the gun control debate in the U.S., in airing their views on the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of gun control in preventing another public massacre. The same exact thing happened after the shooting of US Representative Gabrielle Giffords—as well as 18 innocent bystanders—in Tucson, Arizona in January 2011.
It’s hard to argue against the fact that it’s relatively easy to purchase a wide variety of firearms in several U.S. states. The night James Holmes killed 12 people and injured 58 others in Aurora, he was carrying an assault rifle, a shotgun, and two handguns—all of which he purchased legally, as he had no criminal history, and no evidence (on paper, anyway) of being mentally ill. He also purchased hundreds of rounds of ammunition and ballistic protective gear online, also legally.
So the question becomes, would stricter gun controls, or at least an outright ban on assault- or military-style weapons, have prevented this? One place we can look to for an answer is Mexico.
Contrary to popular belief, Mexico’s constitution has its own version of our Second Amendment. However, few private citizens own firearms. Federal laws have severely restricted the ability to own and carry weapons to soldiers, police, trained bodyguards, and a few others who can make it through the miles-long gauntlet of the application process. If a Mexican citizen can survive the background checks, the mountains of paperwork, the half-dozen required personal recommendations, and the expense, they are limited to buying guns with low stopping power.
There is also only one gun shop in Mexico where they can legally purchase firearms, and it’s in Mexico City—not exactly a close drive for many Mexicans.
Cartels rely heavily on heavy-duty firepower to protect themselves from rivals, prevent encroachment on their territory, do battle with police and the military, and protect drug and cash shipments. As long as the drug war rages, there will be a high demand for firearms in Mexico. As such, Mexican cartels turn to countries where they can cheaply and easily obtain weapons on the black market. These days, those countries include the United States, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and countries in South America and Asia.
Here is where the temptation appears to use strict gun control in the U.S. as a way to also mitigate violence in Mexico. This is a very naïve approach, which assumes that violence in Mexico relies almost completely on the availability of firearms in the U.S.. While we do know that a considerable amount of firearms seized and successfully traced in Mexico were sold in the US, we don’t know—and will never know—what proportion of all guns in Mexico those account for. That approach also assumes that Mexican cartels have few other sources for weapons.
Even if the US government were to make the extremely unlikely (and unconstitutional) decision to ban all firearms in the U.S., the drug war in Mexico, and the related gun violence, would continue unabated.
We should also not be basing our gun laws on the security needs of another country. While the Mexican government would be thrilled at any new gun control initiatives here, and stricter U.S gun laws may have a mild, short-term deterrent effect in Mexico (and this is questionable), that’s not why they should be debated. Finding the right balance between public security and our constitutional rights should always come first in that debate.
Bad, sick people—whether they are psychopathic drug traffickers in Mexico or mentally unstable social misfits in the U.S.—will always want to kill others. Criminals sometimes acquire guns legally because no amount of checking or legal controls would be able to determine their intent. Many times, like in Mexico, they acquire them illegally just as easily with no regard for gun laws in their country.
Ultimately, the violence in Mexico will be reduced not because of the extremely limited domestic availability of guns, but because of the strengthening of government and social institutions, and the reduction of widespread corruption. Massacres like the one in Colorado can likewise be prevented not because of the enactment of strict gun control measures, but a willingness to examine our society, reach out to potentially troubled friends and family members, and act on our gut instinct when its telling us something—or someone—isn’t quite right.
Sylvia Longmire is a former senior border security analyst for the State of California. She is currently a consultant, correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine, and author of Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico’s Drug Wars.