The rest of the story: Is U.S. drug policy or gun policy responsible for Mexican violence?

Several major media outlets reported Friday that the Mexican government had retained a U.S. law firm to explore a possible civil suit against U.S. gun manufacturers. Phoenix’s 12 News interviewed me about the potential lawsuit and the flow of weapons and ammunition south from Arizona to Mexico. (Video above.)

The reporter wanted to know: Are U.S. guns and ammunition ending up in the hands of Mexican drug cartels? How do you know? Who bears the blame?

The only thing she used from me was a short soundbite: I told her there was no way to definitively say what percentage of cartel firepower comes from the U.S. but there is no doubt that there are thousands of guns from the U.S. being used against soldiers and innocents in Mexico.

I went on to give a far more nuanced explanation about the role of U.S. guns in Mexican violence — and where the real blame lies for the deaths in Mexico.

First, are U.S. guns and ammunition being used by Mexican cartels? Yes. I’m not sure why this is up for debate. Every few days I see a press release like this one on Friday, which announces the conviction of a Tucson man for attempting to export 9,000 rounds of ammunition to Mexico. The ATF says that thousands of guns found in Mexico have been definitively traced by their serial numbers back to U.S. gun shops. I’ve personally seen hundreds of guns and boxes upon boxes of ammunition that were sold in the U.S. and recovered by federal officials in Mexico or intercepted on their way there. (Look, I know there is the whole Project Gunrunner controversy but that appears to be a result of investigative overzealousness — not proof that cartels get their weapons from China.)

Do cartels get all their firepower from the U.S.? Of course not. Most? Who knows (I don’t). But the bottom line is that there are U.S. guns and ammunition ending up in the hands of bad guys in Mexico. And those weapons have been turned against Mexican law enforcement and could be turned against Americans, too.

Some gun rights advocates will argue vociferously that cartels don’t get their weapons from the U.S. because they fear the backlash will result in restrictions on the second amendment right to bear arms. The contention that some make that the Obama administration is lying about guns found in Mexico or at border check points so that he can “take away our guns” is ludicrous. Obama has been president for more than two years, including time with a Democratic Congress. And he hasn’t done a darn thing to restrict gun sales. He has backed away from his support for a renewed assault weapons ban (which was at one point a bi-partisan idea supported by George W. Bush). Obama even blocked an emergency rule change from the ATF a few months ago that would have applied the same reporting requirements when someone buys multiple assault weapons (in border states only) that are now in place for handguns. He hasn’t taken any action on the so-called “gun show loophole” either.

Just because you don’t like the possible policy solutions, doesn’t change the underlying facts: U.S. guns are ending up in Mexico.

So who’s to blame? I’m eager to see what kind of case the Mexican government puts together against gun manufacturers. Do gun manufacturers know some of their weapons end up in Mexico? Sure they do. [Did you know that Colt makes a whole series of .38 Supers that appear designed for the Mexican gang market with names like "El Presidente" and "El Patron"? You can even find some named after Malverde, the "patron saint" of drug traffickers. Those guns are status weapons among cartel brass, federal officials tell me.] Still, while semi-automatic assault weapons and .50 BMG sniper rifles popular with the cartels increase the magnitude of the bloodshed in Mexico, they are certainly not the cause of it.

How about gun distributors? Do they know some of their guns will end up in Mexico? Sure, some do. There are always bad actors, especially when there is a lot of money involved. But the U.S. government does not require gun distributors to do much: they run a brief background check and keep a file on who buys guns. They are asked to report anyone who seems suspicious, but the gun dealers I have talked to say that this can be hard for employees to discern: Do you report anyone who buys a lot of guns? Anyone who speaks Spanish? It is legal in Arizona (and any state without robust state gun laws) to buy as many semi-automatic assault weapons and as much ammunition as you like without a waiting period or any reporting to law enforcement or government officials whatsoever.

The gun industry does deserve some blame for blocking common sense measures that could curb some gun trafficking (such as requirements on gun shops to report bulk purchases of semi-automatic weapons, etc.). For some reason, gun advocates today insist that the second amendment is absolute in a way that even the first amendment isn’t. The first amendment gives Americans the right to peaceably assemble. Yet, no one goes crazy when you have to get a permit for a demonstration or a parade. The first amendment grants freedom of the press, yet the press doesn’t have access to cover everything public officials do. The first amendment guarantees the freedom of speech, but slander and libel laws are there to curb the parameters of what we can say.

But in today’s political discourse the gun lobby has such a stranglehold over the process that even common sense measures that in the past would have been supported by both parties are now portrayed as liberal extremism. The gun lobby has won unprecedented protection from public scrutiny (that even curbs the first amendment rights of freedom of speech and of the press!). The so-called Tiahrt Amendments, for example, require the federal government to destroy all records of gun purchases within 24 hours and blocks the agency from sharing specific trace data on guns found at crime scenes (in the U.S. or Mexico) with the public or lawmakers. This is intended to shield the industry from possible lawsuits, but it ends up making it difficult for law enforcement to fight crime and gun trafficking. (Read the ‘Mayors Against Illegal Guns’ summary of the Tiahrt Amendments here.)

So does that mean that U.S. gun manufacturers are to blame for the nearly 40,000 deaths in Mexico in just over four years?

Look, guns are a means for people to commit violent acts. And, yes, easy access to sniper rifles that can tear holes through concrete and cars and semi-automatic assault weapons (which the ATF says can easily be converted to automatic in Mexico) helps the cartels fight the Mexican military. But while guns may be the instruments of battle, they are certainly not the cause of the war.

U.S. drug policy — not U.S. gun policy — is responsible for deaths in Mexico.

People are dying in Mexico because U.S. drug policies have not worked, and our international strategy to fight drugs has pushed drug distribution into Mexico. For more than 40 years, we have been fighting a losing war on drugs. We have not succeeded in curbing drug use, but we have filled our jails and prisons with drug users. We have not won the war against production and distribution, but we have moved the theater of battle. By pushing drug distribution into Mexico, we brought the battle to our border, into a country that was already plagued with poverty and corruption. The fact that the drug cartels are exploiting our gun freedom and using American guns against our national interests in the drug war is another consequence of failed U.S. drug policy.

The inconsistencies and loopholes in U.S. gun laws that have enabled cartels to arm themselves with American weapons and increase the level of violence are important to debate and deal with.  (Read more about my take on gun laws here.) But we should not be fooled into thinking that if we completely stopped the flow of U.S. weapons south we will end the bloodshed in Mexico entirely. The cartels will find weapons elsewhere as long as they have an endless supply of money from black market sales of drugs. If the last four decades of the drug war should have taught us anything it is this: if we defeat the cartels in Mexico new narcos will pop up somewhere else to replace them.  And if we seal the U.S.-Mexico border, the supply of drugs will find another way in — through Canada, via the skies or the seas or produced here at home.

I told the TV reporter: I know you want to be talking about gun policy, but if you are asking me who is to blame for the deaths in Mexico we should be talking about U.S. drug policy. Not surprisingly, that part didn’t make the story.

Read More:

Crawford On Guns: Gun Laws and Trafficking to Cartels

Inside The Phoenix Gunshow: No Hassle to Buy Assault Rifles

Get Your Guns: Inside the Phoenix gun show

The Iron River: As concerns mount over the potential for Mexican drug cartel violence to spill over the border, a steady flow of firearms south from Phoenix is helping give the cartels their lethal firepower

More…

–AJC

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