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A New Lawsuit Illustrates the Problem of U.S. Guns in Mexico

Bullet casings are seen on the ground at the crime scene after Mexico City's Public Security Secretary Omar García Harfuch was wounded in an attack in Mexico City, June 26, 2020.

Last month, the Mexican government filed a lawsuit against major U.S. arms manufacturers and distributors in a U.S. federal court, suing the companies for damages caused by the illegal flow of their guns into Mexico. The lawsuit not only looks for compensation—with some damages estimated at $10 billion—but also to change the commercial practices of U.S. gun companies that facilitate the flow of guns. Regardless of how the lawsuit ends—considering existing U.S. laws offer gun companies broad immunity from civil litigation—it is important to acknowledge the huge impacts of the flow of U.S. guns into Mexico. It is equally important to address disinformation surrounding this flow and recognize that America can and should do more to stop it.

Basic facts about the flow of guns from the United States to Mexico

Mexican gun laws are very restrictive: Legal gun purchases can only be made in a single store on a Mexico City army base. Yet according to studies done by Intersecta, Mexico’s military registered 900,000 firearms from 2000 to 2019—close to 45,000 per year. Therefore, firearms used to perpetrate crimes in Mexico, by and large, come from abroad. In fact, the United States is the main supplier of guns used in crimes throughout Mexico. Reports from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the Government Accountability Office have consistently determined, since 2009, that close to 70 percent of guns recovered at Mexican crime scenes originate in the United States. This is not only because the United States shares one of the world’s busiest and largest borders with Mexico but for other reasons as well.

The United States’ production and importation of firearms has increased

First, the production of firearms in the United States skyrocketed during the mid-2000s, particularly the production of rifles and high-caliber pistols. This coincided with the United States’ removal of the federal assault weapons ban in 2004, which academic studies have linked to the rise of violence, particularly gun homicides, in Mexican municipalities that border Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Firearm imports into the United States, particularly rifles and pistols, have also increased. Some of these imported guns, including AK-47 rifles, are later smuggled into Mexico. In fact, a November 2019 Center for American Progress analysis found a strong statistical association between the production and importation of U.S. firearms and homicides in Mexico. While correlation is not necessarily causation, evidence shows that this is more than a statistical coincidence. News stories and press releases from the Department of Justice consistently highlight cases where U.S. guns are trafficked into Mexico or report on failed smuggling attempts. For example, in May 2020, a man from Brownsville, Texas, was charged with smuggling semi-automatic firearms into Mexico. A year later, three men were charged with conspiring to purchase $500,000 in weapons for a Mexican drug cartel.

The United States has weak gun laws

In addition to high inventories of guns, the United States has weak gun laws. Specifically, the United States allows for the commercialization of assault weapons, firearms that are not only used during mass shootings here but that are also weapons of choice for criminal groups in Mexico; weapons such as the AR-15 and even the Barrett 0.50 caliber rifles are banned in Mexico but often recovered at Mexican crime scenes. Additionally, U.S. law allows for the purchase of guns during private sales without a background check. This means that anyone, even gun traffickers, can purchase a firearm at a gun show or other venue that allows private transactions with no questions asked.

The United States is a major supplier of guns to other countries in the region

Lastly, Mexico is not the only recipient of U.S. firearms in the region. While national organizations that side with the U.S. gun industry falsely claim that most firearms recovered in Mexico come from Central America, they ignore the fact that the United States is a major supplier of illegal guns to Central America. From 2014 to 2019, more than 15,000 U.S. firearms were recovered in Central American nations, mainly in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. During that same period, more than 6,000 U.S. firearms were recovered in Caribbean countries and more than 11,000 were recovered in Canada. But the guns don’t stop there. The Brazilian police have recognized the United States as a main supplier of crime guns to their country, and U.S. guns have even reached Chile, the southernmost nation in the Americas.

The impact of U.S. guns in Mexico since the mid-2000s

Over the past two decades, Mexico has seen a surge in violence, particularly gun violence. This is the result of a combination of internal factors—including legal impunity for those who commit a crime, corruption among public officials, and Mexico’s war on drugs—but also the easy access to U.S. guns. While 25 percent of Mexico’s homicides were perpetrated with a gun during 2004—the last year the United States banned assault weapons—by 2020 this figure had risen to 70 percent. Firearms are also often used to perpetrate other crimes such as robberies and kidnappings. In this regard, the experience of being threatened with a gun has significant emotional and physical repercussions.

Unfortunately, pro-gun advocates argue that the problem is Mexico’s restrictive gun laws. But those gun laws have existed since the early 1970s and have not historically been accompanied by a rise in homicides. In fact, Mexico’s homicide levels were declining until the mid-2000s, when increases coincided with the start of Mexico’s drug war and changes in U.S. gun laws. Some argue that Mexico could solve its gun violence problem by replicating the United States’ permissive gun laws, but the United States’ approach is misguided both at home and abroad. Every day, more than 106 people in the United States are killed with a gun, and more than 200 are injured. Mass shootings are alarmingly frequent; accidental shootings, as well as gun suicides, occur daily; and thousands of firearms are stolen and trafficked across U.S. states. Compared with other developed nations, the United States has significantly higher rates of firearm-related violence.

With its gun violence epidemic, the United States is in no way a good example to follow. But as stated above, the blame for Mexico’s problem of gun violence does not fall solely on easy access to U.S. guns. Mexico’s government would be wrong to neglect its nation’s unaddressed challenges, including the Mexican military’s easy diversion of legally purchased U.S. firearms to state and local police agencies colluding with crime groups and committing gross human rights violations.

At the same time, however, the United States needs to recognize its shared responsibility. The ongoing lawsuit from the Mexican government opens the door for discussions around gun laws that would address the flow of U.S. guns abroad. These laws, which include passing universal background checks and banning or regulating assault weapons, are the same laws that would mitigate violence in the United States and that are supported by most Americans. The lawsuit also raises an important policy question about who should bear the costs for lax U.S. gun laws—a toll Mexico no longer wants to endure, as it has asked the United States to tighten its gun laws and prevent the illegal flow of U.S. guns across its border—or pay for the harm incurred. The United States should take a particular interest in this, not only for moral reasons but also because violence and insecurity within its regional neighbors is intertwined with other relevant challenges that are of national security interest to America, such as migration and commerce. U.S. gun violence extends beyond its borders; regardless of the outcome, Mexico’s lawsuit is a reminder of that fact. The United States can and should do more.

Eugenio Weigend Vargas is the director for Gun Violence Prevention at the Center for American Progress. Joel Martinez is the Mexico policy analyst for National Security and International Policy at the Center.