Before bipartisan, global condemnation prompted President Trump to reverse course on separating children from their families at the border and warehousing them in chain-link cages, administration officials justified the policy by claiming it would deter northward immigration. But as former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has explained, no deterrence policy, however cruel, will succeed if it doesn’t address the underlying conditions that spur northward migration. Yet the Trump Administration has entirely ignored a critical driver of those conditions: the uninterrupted flow of guns south across the border.
U.S. guns trafficked to and through Mexico — estimated at more than 200,000 guns every year — are fueling violence across Latin America, perpetuating an unsustainable crisis in Mexico, and empowering the human traffickers who drive illegal immigration. In Mexico, human and drug traffickers using American guns are responsible for historic levels of gun violence and a soaring murder rate that reached 16,828 gun homicides last year, more than ever before. That is thousands more gun murders than in the U.S., even though the U.S. has two-and-a-half times the population.
The record-setting blood-letting across the Rio Grande demands Americans’ attention not only because it fuels immigration but because it results from the same porous and poorly enforced gun laws driving gun violence in the United States.
Here, firearms trafficked from states with weak gun laws feed violence and crime in states with strong laws. New Jersey and New York, for example, have some of the nation’s strongest gun laws, and the vast majority of armed criminals there get their guns in states that don’t. Over the first three months of this year, more than three-quarters of New Jersey’s crime guns came from out of state. Five times as many came from the weak-gun-law states that run along the “ Iron Pipeline” down Route 95 than from all other states combined. The same is true in New York. Three-quarters of New York crime guns come from out of state and 70% of trafficked guns originate in Iron Pipeline states where you can buy a gun without a permit or background check.
Weak state laws and illegal trafficking drive Mexican gun violence, too. This year, even more murders are projected than last year’s record-breaking pace, and most will involve guns from north of the border. According to U.S. authorities, 70 percent of guns seized in Mexico from 2011 to 2016 were sold by a brick-and-mortar gun store in the United States and then smuggled south to Mexico.
The problem is especially bad in Tamaulipas state, just across the border from Texas. Between 2012 and 2017, a quarter of all illegal guns seized in Mexico and an even greater share of illegal assault weapons were recovered in Tamaulipas, even though it contains less than five percent of Mexico’s area and just two-and-a-half percent of the Mexican population. Authorities seized five times more illegal ammunition in Tamaulipas than in any other state.
That’s no coincidence since Tamaulipas shares a border with Texas, whose notoriously weak firearm laws earned it an F on the gun law scorecard issued by Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, over a recent five-year period, Texas accounted for more than two in five illegal U.S. guns seized in Mexico. F-rated Arizona accounted for another 15 percent. Gun stores in these two failing-grade states alone sold more than half of all guns recovered and traced at Mexican crime scenes.
Texas and Arizona stand in stark contrast with A-rated California, another border state has the strongest firearm laws in the United States. Illegal guns seized in Mexico come from Texas and Arizona at more than three times the per-capita rate as they do from California.
Just as weak laws in some American states undermine public safety nationwide, they enable gun trafficking to Mexico and contribute to the extraordinary murder rate there. Yet, the Trump Administration has taken no action on trafficking and has not raised it while re-negotiating North American Free Trade Agreement. Worse still, the Administration has proposed to relax oversight of overseas gun sales and make it easier for U.S. gun companies to export .50-caliber sniper rifles and the AR-15 rifles that have become the weapon of choice in U.S. mass shootings. House and Senate critics of the proposal have denounced the proposal as a gift to gun lobby profit-margins, and rightly predicted that the looser rules will provide a boon for gun runners and groups like Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel.
Deregulating exports by U.S. gun companies will exacerbate an already-unsustainable crisis that is claiming countless lives and driving thousands to seek safer lives in the United States. If instead our leaders would stand up to an industry that values profits over lives and take real action on gun trafficking, it would mitigate the current immigration crisis and stop genuine North American carnage.
Roberto Gil Zuarth served as President of the Mexican Senate and is Special Adviser to the Program for the Reduction of Illegal Weapons in Tamaulipas. Adam Skaggs is Chief Counsel of Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.