Online gun enthusiast message boards elaborate two recurring themes related to U.S.-Mexico firearms traffic. First is a palpable disdain for Mexican requests to curb weapons flows into the country, such as the studiously ignored formal request from the Mexican Congress on 9 January to create a border states gun registry. Responses to such requests range from the sardonic (“How about Mexico creates a registry of its citizens and tells us who isn’t at home?”) to the churlish (“F*** Mexico”) to the indignant (“How dare they infringe my God-given rights!”) to the genocidal (“Let them all kill each other”).
Second is a suggestion that Mexico’s government, unable to staunch the rising tide of cartel violence, will shortly collapse. After all, as many as 120,000 homicides have taken place in Mexico since the beginning of then-President Felipe Calderón’s drug war in 2006, with the proportion committed by firearm rising from 20 to 50 per cent over the last 15 years. Having a failed state just south of the border will, some argue, require Americans to defend themselves by force of arms. (Yet at 15 guns per 100 people, Mexico’s guns are still about six times less prevalent than in the United States.)
Some gun advocates seem to acknowledge the contradiction between blaming Mexico for the coming anarchy, and brazen indifference to firearms traffic enabling cartels to operate in the first place. These deny that the traffic is noteworthy. The NRA and Fox News both attacked the estimate that 90% of traceable guns seized in Mexico came from the United States, claiming that the subset of traceable guns is bound to be skewed toward U.S. provenance – though the 17% number they substituted ridiculously assumed that no untraced guns were US-sold. The Right asserts that guns shouldn’t flow north to south because Central America is “awash” in cheap guns from civil wars of the ’80s and ’90s. This is not wrong because the U.S. was the single largest supplier of arms to Central American counter-revolutions (which it was). It’s wrong because it’s a highly stylized argument that confuses the Republican view of what they want to happen with empirical observation.
There’s no doubt arms flow from the U.S. to Mexico. Econometric studies (1, 2) have shown unequivocally that the U.S. Assault Weapons Ban reduced homicide rates across the border in Mexico. Moreover, there’s a price gradient reported within Mexico: the farther from the U.S. border you are, the more an AK-47 costs. Most obviously, in 2009 alone, U.S. and Mexican authorities seized roughly 37,000 U.S.-sold firearms. But what proportion of the total traffic does this represent? Due to the intentional lack of information on gun sales in the U.S., no one seems to know. Our team at University of San Diego’s Trans-Border Institute and Brazil’s Igarapé Institute sought to estimate this volume econometrically in a recent study. We employed data from the Bureau for Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to create a demand curve, predicting the number of Federal Firearms Licenses to retail (FFLs) as a function of distance from the border.
We estimate that around 2.2% of U.S.-sold guns go south of the border – a proportion that has steadily risen since the early 1990s. This implies an annual value of roughly $127 million, and an annual volume of 252,000 firearms. It also implies that U.S. and Mexican authorities are seizing just 15% of the total traffic. Stunningly, some 47% of U.S. gun shops depend economically on demand from the U.S.-Mexico trade. They are, wittingly or no, merchants of death.
The U.S. can no longer ask Mexico and other Latin American countries to pay the price for its lax gun regulations. And while recent bills outlawing firearms trafficking and “straw purchasing” are a step in the right direction, we need to get smarter. Background checks should be able not just to verify a clean record, but to look for straw purchaser profiles. ATF should be allowed to keep disaggregated data on FFLs to alert them to dubious transactions. Cash sales of firearms should be prohibited in border states. And the ATF should assist Mexican authorities not just with the adoption of their e-Trace tool for arms tracing (long-delayed, ostensibly due to the process of translating it into Spanish), but also building their own registry of seized weapons.
Rights come with responsibilities. U.S. gun owners and the NRA would gain some badly needed credibility if they acknowledged that simple fact.