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The Mark of “C”

While Anti-Gunners in Congress Hail Him as the New Zorro, President Calderón Takes a Swipe at American Gun Rights

By Dave Kopel

America's 1st Freedom, August 2010

On May 20, Mexican President Felipe Calderón addressed a joint session of the United States Congress, blamed America for Mexico’s problem of violent drug gangs and asked Congress to reinstate the Clinton-era ban on so-called “assault weapons.”

Calderón claimed that the 2004 sunset of the Clinton gun ban was the direct cause of the current violence in Mexico. In response, many in Congress gave him a standing ovation. But were President Calderón’s claims correct?

Let’s take a look.

According to Calderón, “There are more than 7,000 gun shops along the border with Mexico, where almost anyone can purchase these powerful weapons.”

The claim about the number of gun stores is close. According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives (BATFE), there are 6,647 Federal Firearms Licensees in the Southwest border region of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. (Congressional Research Service, The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, April 15, 2010, reporting on a May 5, 2008, briefing by BATFE to CRS.)

But it’s definitely not true that “almost anyone can purchase these powerful weapons.”

First of all, the so-called “assault weapons,” which were subject to the 1994-2004 Clinton ban, were no more “powerful” than other guns. They typically fired intermediate power cartridges. Nor did the banned guns fire faster than other firearms. They fired one, and only one, bullet when the trigger was pulled—just like every other semi-automatic or, for that matter, just like a revolver.

The Clinton ban was actually based on features irrelevant to crime, such as whether the gun had a bayonet mount or a folding stock. Such features obviously have nothing to do with the gun’s power.

Second, President Calderón was wrong to claim that “almost anyone can purchase” the guns. In fact, every retail firearm sale anywhere in the United States must be approved by the National Instant Background Check System or its state counterpart.

Federal and state law prohibit millions of people from owning or possessing firearms—based on convictions for felonies or domestic violence misdemeanors, restraining orders and for many other reasons. The NICS check ensures that such persons are prevented from buying guns from dealers.

So if Calderón had wanted to be accurate, he would have told Congress, “Only persons who have been verified to have a clean record can purchase these ordinary, not-especially-powerful guns.”

In his speech, President Calderón further claimed: “If you look carefully, you will notice that the violence started to grow a couple of years before I took office in 2006. This coincides with the lifting of the ‘assault weapons’ ban in 2004.”

Well, we did look carefully. And the claim is false—just a convenient lie for politics’ sake.

The Clinton gun ban expired in September 2004. Yet the total number of homicides in Mexico declined from 12,760 in 2003 to 11,690 in 2004. They remained stable, at 11,732 in 2005, and 11,558 in 2006, and then declined more in 2007, to 10,291. This low figure in 2007 was far below the figures earlier in the decade, when the Clinton ban was in full effect (13,829 homicides in 2000; 13,855 homicides in 2001; 13,144 homicides in 2002).

In other words, the end of the Clinton ban was actually followed by a sharp decrease in homicides in Mexico during the subsequent three years.

Calderón became president of Mexico in December 2006, and promptly escalated the “drug war” there. By 2008, the number of Mexican homicides soared by 22 percent in a single year, up to 12,577. As a Congressional Research Service report explained: “The government’s crackdown, as well as turf wars among rival drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) has fueled an escalation in violence throughout the country, including states along the U.S.-Mexico border” (Merida Initiative for Mexico and Central America: Funding and Policy Issues, April 19, 2010).

In short, if Calderón had spoken accurately concerning this topic, he would have said, “The violence started to grow a year after I took office in late 2006. Falling violence coincided with the lifting of the ‘assault weapons’ ban in 2004.”

The Economist Intelligence Unit reported that drug homicides in Mexico doubled from 2007 to 2008, and then rose 30 percent more in 2009 (March 2, 2010). This, too, is inconsistent with Calderón’s finger pointing at the September 2004 sunset of the Clinton ban. Rather, the data show violence rising after Calderón’s escalation of the drug war, deploying 30,000 soldiers and federal police. This push against drug cartels led to a counteroffensive by the drug lords, as well as to more turf wars in areas where old gang territories were destabilized.

By the way, according to Calderón himself, 95 percent of the drug war deaths are drug gangsters killed by other drug gangsters (Dallas Observer, April 29, 2010).

Further fanning the anti-Second Amendment flames, Calderón told Congress that of guns seized in Mexico, “More than 80 percent of those we have been able to trace came from the United States.”

For years the United States has been providing billions of dollars in anti-crime assistance to Mexico. As part of that assistance, BATFE has Mexican offices, which will trace any gun that the Mexican authorities ask. Yet Mexican officials actually request traces of only a small fraction of guns seized.

For example, according to BATFE, Mexico asked for 7,743 firearm traces in the fiscal year that ended Oct. 1, 2008, and for 3,312 traces in the fiscal year ending Oct. 1, 2007. This was only about 20 percent of all guns seized. Of those 11,000 guns, only 6,000 could be traced. Of those 6,000, 5,114 were traced to the United States (William Newell, March 24, 2009, testimony before U.S. House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies).

This minority of traced guns is not necessarily representative of Mexican crime guns. First of all, it would make no sense to ask for traces for guns that are plainly not American—such as guns that appear to be from China or Eastern Europe, both of which supply enormous quantities of firearms to warlords and gangsters worldwide.

Sylvia Longmire, a retired counterintelligence officer who runs the website Mexico’s Drug War, asked a BATFE official why so many Mexican guns are not traced. Speaking anonymously, the officer explained that some guns are not traced because the serial number has been filed off. (Such numbers can often be recovered, but it is an arduous process.) In addition, “Other guns are stolen or ‘misplaced’” by corrupt law enforcement officials, either for personal use or for passing on to Mexican DTOs. Some are never submitted because corrupt officials are attempting to protect the DTO-sponsored purchasers. And finally, some are simply destroyed without being traced” (Mexico’s Drug War, Aug. 17, 2009).

Longmire makes it clear that she is not trying to understate the flow of U.S. guns into Mexico. But she does point out, “There are many guns and other high-powered weapons used by Mexican DTOs that come from Central America, South Korea and former Eastern Bloc countries. Some are remnants from civil wars and other conflicts in Latin America, and some are sold to DTOs on the black market.”

Further, according to a July 9, 2009, report from private intelligence analysis company Stratfor, Mexican authorities “are unlikely to ask the ATF to trace weapons that can be tracked through the Mexican government’s own database such as the one maintained by Mexican Defense Department’s Arms and Ammunition Marketing Division (UCAM), which is the only outlet through which Mexican citizens can legally buy guns. If they can trace a gun through UCAM there is simply no need to submit it to ATF.”

Since there is only one gun store in Mexico and it is owned by the government, the tracing of Mexican-origin guns is easy. But the decision not to ask BATFE to trace the guns that have been lawfully sold in Mexico obviously means that guns BATFE does trace will be a badly skewed, unrepresentative sample of Mexican crime guns.

Moreover, the fact that a Mexican crime gun had been manufactured in or imported into the United States does not prove that the American retail market is to blame in any way. The United States sells large quantities of guns to the federal, state and local Mexican governments. These Mexican government purchases may themselves be a major source of Mexican crime guns. According to CNN, there have been 150,000 desertions from the Mexican army in the last six years (March 11, 2009). Stated another way, about one-eighth of the Mexican army deserts annually (Los Angeles Times, May 20, 2007). Many of these deserters take their government-issued automatic rifles, some with U.S. origins, with them.

As CNN reported, many of these deserters go to work for higher pay for the DTOS. Indeed, the Zetas, an especially violent gang even by Mexican standards, was founded by Mexican Special Forces deserters.

The Zetas, who also recruit from Guatemalan army special forces (Kaibiles), have used counterinsurgency tactics to take over various regions from other drug cartels. They have frequently launched grenade attacks on police stations. They deploy weaponry that even includes .50-cal. anti-aircraft machine guns.

So if a Mexican army deserter is later caught with his M-16, that fact does not mean that the U.S. civilian gun market is somehow at fault. The same is true for M-16s and other U.S. military weapons that come to the Mexican DTOS after first being legally sold to governments such as Guatemala or South Korea. Marlene Blanco, chief of the Guatemala National Police, says that the police have “lost” at least 2,000 guns, including automatic UZIs and AK-47s (Prensa Libre, Guatemala City, Dec. 10, 2008).

Likewise, many U.S. Army M-16 rifles were left behind in Vietnam and many of them have been sold into the global black market.

In further contradiction of Calderón’s claim, Mexican DTOs also rob American gun stores. The Zetitas (little Zetas) gang has cells in Houston, Laredo and San Antonio, and is believed to be carrying out gun store robberies (Stratfor, Mexico: Dynamics of the Gun Trade, Oct. 24, 2007).

A gun stolen from Houston by a Mexican gang in 2007 might well end up being seized by Mexican police in 2010, and then traced to the United States. But that is hardly proof that “lax” American gun laws are to blame for Mexican crime. 

According to Stratfor, besides the U.S. supply source for guns, “The cartels also obtain weapons from contacts along their supply networks in South and Central America, where substantial quantities of military ordnance have been shipped over decades to supply insurgencies and counterinsurgencies. Explosives from domestic Mexican sources also are widely available and are generally less expensive than guns.”

The May 4 issue of the Mexico City newspaper El Universal reported on the weapons bazaars in Tepito, a Mexico City neighborhood notorious as a place where anyone can buy anything. According to that report, anyone with 3,000 pesos (about $234 U.S. at the current exchange rate of about 12.7:1) can buy a gun. A new 9 mm pistol is 12,000 pesos. Hand grenades and “assault rifles” (15,000 pesos) are only available “on request.”

The Tepito black marketers reported receiving wholesale monthly or bimonthly shipments of “revolvers, submachine guns, rifles and grenade launchers.” Significantly, “A percentage of the weapons, the seller said, come from Mexico via Ministry of Defense personnel who provide [them] in part from weapons seized in raids, or stolen from the ministry’s own arsenal.”

A Mexican federal government document, USA-Mexico Firearms Smuggling (March 26, 2009) reports that in the previous three years, the government seized 2,804 grenades.

According to the report, the types of arms seized that were among “the highest quantity” were “anti-tank rockets M72 and AT-4, rocket launchers RPG-7, grenade launchers MGL Caliber 37 mm, grenade launcher additional devices caliber 37 and 40 mm, 37 and 40 mm grenades, fragmenting grenades.”

Arms in “second place” for highest quantity seized included “rocket launchers and submachine guns.”

The prevalence of grenades, grenade launchers, submachine guns and other such weapons in Mexico clearly shows that the Mexican drug trafficking organizations have important sources of weapons other than the legitimate U.S. market. You obviously can’t buy a grenade or a machine gun over the counter at a gun store in Tucson or at a gun show in San Antonio.

Testifying before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Border, Maritime and Global Counterterrorism on July 16, 2009, BATFE stated that the grenades and other military-grade weaponry were coming into Mexico via the southern border with Guatemala.

There is also something else missing from President Calderón’s story about firearm traces—the times when the Mexican government has thwarted traces.

For example, in 2008, Mexican police in Reynosa, a border town near the southern tip of Texas, made the largest weapons seizure in Mexican history: 288 “assault rifles,” 428,000 rounds of ammunition, 287 grenades and a grenade launcher. BATFE asked to see the serial numbers on the guns in order to trace them; the Mexican government refused (The Guardian, London, Jan. 12, 2009; Express-News, San Antonio, Nov. 30, 2008).

At other times, an initial trace may be successful, but further investigation is blocked. Feb. 15, 2007, was “Black Thursday” in Mexico—the day that drug gangsters in central Mexico murdered four law enforcement officers. BATFE traced the firearms used in the murders to a gun store in Laredo, Texas, and found the man who had purchased the guns. He asserted that he had sold them to a total stranger whom he met at a shooting range. While BATFE wanted to investigate further and discover the trafficking network that had delivered the guns to the murderers, the Mexican government stonewalled.

According to a 2008 special investigation by the San Antonio Express-News:

“The ATF wouldn’t get much from their Mexican counterparts, who imposed an almost total information blackout about the arrests of 14 suspects, including the alleged shooters. Not even the four widows know what happened to their husbands’ alleged killers. The mystery extends to local journalists and municipal police, who are told only the arrested are still in prison but not tried. And, federal authorities have so far refused Express-News interview requests to discuss the case.

“The ATF’s Elias Bazan, who oversaw the Laredo office at the time, said Mexico’s investigators squandered an opportunity to provide the results of their interrogations and any evidence, outside of the guns’ serial numbers, that would point to how the weapons were smuggled from the Laredo side. ‘We don’t have anything from the Mexican government, so we’re screwed,’ Bazan said of his Laredo investigation, which was shut down as a result.”

Professor George W. Grayson, author of the book Mexico’s Struggle with “Drugs and Thugs,” calls the claim that the vast majority of Mexican crime guns come from the American retail market “wildly exaggerated.” He says that Calderón is pushing the claim for purposes of domestic Mexican politics (Washington Diplomat, June 2009). Indeed, politicians in Latin America have often found that blaming the United States for domestic problems is good politics.

In any case, the profits of the Mexican drug cartels are estimated to be $25 billion a year—or about 2 percent of Mexico’s gross domestic product (The United States and Mexico: Towards a Strategic Partnership, Wilson Center, Jan. 2009). The Mexican government estimates that the gross revenues of weapons trafficking into Mexico are $22 million per year (Express-News, Jan. 13, 2009). In other words, weapons acquisition costs the drug gangs only about 1 percent of annual profits and a tiny fraction of gross revenues. Accordingly, the DTOS appear to have substantial extra revenue to spend on buying weapons should law enforcement successes result in an increase in the black market price of arms.

Thus, the notion that banning law-abiding Americans from buying certain guns is going to disarm Mexican organized crime is implausible.

In his address to Congress, President Calderón proclaimed: “I fully respect, I admire the American Constitution, and I understand that the purpose of the Second Amendment is to guarantee good American citizens the ability to defend themselves and their nation.”

Those are nice words, indeed. But they would be more plausible if the Calderón government showed any respect for the right to arms guarantee in the Mexican Constitution.

According to Article 10 of the Mexican Constitution: “The inhabitants of the United Mexican States have a right to arms in their homes, for security and legitimate defense, with the exception of arms prohibited by federal law and those reserved for the exclusive use of the Army, Navy, Air Force and National Guard. Federal law will determine the cases, conditions, requirements and places in which the carrying of arms will be authorized to the inhabitants.”

Despite the explicit guarantee of a right to non-military arms for home defense, the Mexican gun control system makes it very difficult for law-abiding Mexicans to possess defensive arms at all.

Instead of calling for gun bans for law-abiding American citizens, President Calderón could genuinely help the Mexican people by securing the border. Yet for years, the Mexican government has not even inspected southbound traffic at some U.S.-Mexico border crossings. That is finally beginning to change—thanks to even more funding from American taxpayers for the Mexican government. U.S. border officials are also starting their own inspections of southbound traffic into Mexico.

While Mexico’s problems are not America’s fault, most can agree with the objective of trying to prevent the Mexican drug gangs from acquiring any American arms. But as the “real” facts show, curtailing the Second Amendment rights of Americans is not a valid answer to correcting the extremely dangerous situation.

Sidebar 1: What Are The Cases?

If, as President Calderón claims, many thousands of guns are being legally purchased in the United States and smuggled over the border to Mexican drug gangs, shouldn’t there be thousands of prosecutions ongoing in border state courts? After all, making a straw purchase isn’t exactly legal by U.S. law. My intern called BATFE for data on cases being prosecuted concerning firearms sold in the United States and later being sent to Mexico. After getting shuttled from one person to another, he finally ended up talking to a BATFE representative in Houston, who was unable or unwilling to tell him anything about what she called his “unusual” request. She told him, instead, to submit a Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) request. That FOIA request has been submitted, and we’ll report on the findings in an upcoming issue. —Dave Kopel

Sidebar 2: An Excerpt From Calderón’s May 20 Speech To A Joint Session of Congress

“However, there is one issue where Mexico needs your cooperation, and that is stopping the flow of assault weapons and other deadly arms across the border. Let me be clear on this. I fully respect, I admire the American Constitution, and I understand that the purpose of the Second Amendment is to guarantee good American citizens the ability to defend themselves and their nation. But believe me, many of these guns are not going to honest American hands. Instead, thousands are ending up in the hands of criminals. Just to give you an idea, we have seized 75,000 guns and assault weapons in Mexico in the last 3 years, and more than 80 percent of those we have been able to trace came from the United States. And if you look carefully, you will notice that the violence in Mexico started to grow a couple of years before I took office in 2006. This coincides with the lifting of the assault weapons ban in 2004. One day, criminals in Mexico, having gained access to these weapons, decided to challenge the authorities in my country. Today, these weapons are aimed by the criminals not only at rival gangs but also at Mexican civilians and authorities. And with all due respect, if you do not regulate the sale of these weapons in the right way, nothing guarantees that criminals here in the United States with access to the same power of weapons will not decide to challenge the American authorities and civilians. It is true that the U.S. government is now carrying out operations against gun traffickers. But it is also true that there are more than 7,000 gun shops along the border with Mexico, where almost anyone can purchase these powerful weapons. I also fully understand the political sensitivity of this issue. But I would ask Congress to help us, with respect, and to understand how important it is for us that you enforce current laws to stem the supply of these weapons to criminals and consider reinstating the assault weapons ban. By any legal way that you consider, let us work together to end this lethal trade that threatens Mexico and your own people.”


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