It is a popular claim by the Trump administration and its supporters: ‘When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best’. The statement, albeit now famous and rendered tame by more recent inflammatory rhetoric, persists among conservative discourse. While the idea that immigrants from Mexico, and the Mexican government, ‘sends crime’ to the United States (US) on a daily basis has been debunked time and time again, it is interesting to note a certain parallel that has gone relatively undiscussed – even in light of recent high-profile mass shootings and their accompanying debates. While the developed world watches in utter confusion (and relative safety), the US has continued to allow the purchase of high-calibre, semi and full automatic weaponry by the general public in defence of constitutional rights, while those opposed beg gun owners to think of the countless US citizens who have been killed at their expense. It is a common argument: within the US, guns kill tens of thousands of people each year. But what about internationally? In an attempt at relatability, the US public eye has shifted away from their neighbours’ plight – a plight sponsored and maintained by US policy on gun control. ‘Available evidence indicates’, reads a recent report by US Government Accountability Office (GAO), ‘many of the firearms fuelling Mexican drug violence originated in the United States, including a growing number of increasingly lethal weapons’. Mexico maintains some of the strictest gun laws in the world – they are mostly illegal, and obtaining a permit and a weapon can only happen through a single gun shop in Mexico City, a lengthy and expensive process. Yet, it is the anomalous centre of so much violence, but it is no wonder. It is not Mexico who sends crime to the US, but the predictable opposite – and yet, for conservative critics, this fact is at best disputed and at worst inverted. Lack of discussion and a plethora of statistics provides an opportunity to focus on an unnoticed victim of US gun policy.
Misinterpreted Statistics and the ‘90 Percent Myth’
As is usual, misinformation, coupled with unstandardized research, has muddied the waters of this debate. This is not made easier by the Dicky amendment, a law that forbids the use of governmental funds to promote gun control, as well as the federal budget cut that left the CDC without the capacity to study the effects of gun violence. We simply do not have reliable data on guns; however, this has had a lesser effect on the study of international weapons movement, and certain governmental organisations have done their best with what they have to analyse the trafficking of weapons to other countries from the US – if only to displace blame. In 2009 the GAO, utilising data collected by the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), published a report in response to escalating violence along the US-Mexican border, violence largely due to the Mexican government’s crackdown on drug trafficking organisations. By analysing guns submitted to them by the Mexican government, this early report concluded that 90 percent of the guns seized over the three years before 2009 came from the United States. This number came under lots of fire from conservative critics, and the so-called ’90 percent myth’ became a buzzword for dodgy gun statistics. The controversy came from the number of weapons analysed, as the Mexican government only submitted 7,200 of the 30,000 weapons collected in 2008, of which only 4,000 could be traced at all, and only 3,480 traced to the US – 90% of the original 4,000. It did not help that 2009-2010 was the height of the ATF Gunwalking scandal, in which ATF agents, in a sting operation called ‘Operation Fast and Furious’, facilitated the sale of 2,000 guns to illegal purchasers in Mexico hoping to trace them to cartel leaders, then promptly lost 65% of the guns they were supposed to trace. After two federal agents were murdered by guns that were part of the successful trace in 2010 and 2011, government involvement became the one to blame for guns in Mexico, not the US’ relaxed gun policy.
After all this, attention turned more to the domestic effect of gun laws, exasperated by tragic shootings in Newtown, Aurora, and San Bernardino. There was therefore little coverage given to an interesting development, when the GAO published an updated study in 2016. Coverage of the previous study was misleading – while the study covered 4 years of trafficking analysis, critics focused only 2008, touting low numbers like 3,480. In fact, 20,000 weapons had been traced back to the United States over those years, 87% of all weapons submitted. In the updated 2016 study, a more accurate number of 70% has been generated, with an astounding 73,600 firearms submitted by the Mexican government originating in the United States. It is clear that this is no myth, no anomaly, but a clear link to the ease of access that illegal gun buyers have with a neighbour such as the United States of America.
Cause and Effect
It should be made clear – Mexico has a major problem with corruption. Transparency International ranks them 135 out of 180, with 180 being most corrupt. Such corruption allowed the drug cartels that now rack the country with violence to grow and fester, and this fact should not be discounted. Conservative critics frequently make the contention that Mexico’s problems are not the fault of the US, and that there is nothing to be done about these bad guys with guns other than secure the border. But it should also be made clear, when we charge killers with war crimes, we charge their gun suppliers too. The US has fuelled a bloody war within Mexico by providing easy weapon access to the cartel operatives, a war that has so far claimed the lives of over 150,000 people (500 of them US citizens), and displaced another 1.6 million.
So how does this happen? An average of 253,000 guns cross the border into Mexico every year, reliant on lax US gun laws – in part through ‘straw purchases’. ‘A straw purchase is when a person who is prohibited by federal law from buying firearms contracts a third party to buy them on their behalf’, and states that allow buyers to purchase weapons at gun shows and flea markets without background checks end up perfect shopping malls for cartel gunrunners. California is the only border state that requires universal background checks on gun purchases including gun shows, so illegal buyers have free reign in the three other border states, or the 33 other states that maintain this ‘gun show loophole’. While the Obama administration made some attempt to address these issues, the Trump administration has shown little, or fluctuating support for solving not only the crisis in the US, but its indirect damage to Mexican society. Despite a 2017 executive order committed to addressing international trafficking by cartels, little has actually been done. It is clear that continuation of the relaxed laws that govern firearms in the United States will contribute not only to domestic deaths in the US, but to so many others just across the border.
Despite attempts from both sides to claim that the issue is simple, no matter the solution, it is not. Although confusing to the rest of the world, and some of the US, gun use is an ingrained cultural aspect for many Americans. Arguments for and against gun control frequently bounce off one another, many times because they do not operate in the same plane of assumption. Critics presuppose an absence of cultural attachment, and supporters use that same attachment as an argument. It seems, therefore, that a new strategy must be attempted by those who wish for ‘common-sense gun control’. When the facts are presented, as they have been in this article, the next step should not be unsentimental banishment. It should be a question, without judgement. It is probable that the vast majority of gun owners, when presented with the true facts and a request to allow some logical restriction, would agree. Angry discourse and debate only entrenches ideology, and we cannot afford this, or there will be more death – at home and abroad.