Julia Sweig is the Nelson and David Rockefeller senior fellow for Latin America Studies and director for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Joel Hernandez is a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Sandy Hook, Aurora, Tucson, Virginia Tech, Columbine: massacres that punctuate the more than ten thousand gun homicides perpetrated every year in the United States. Yet what often goes missing from each subsequent debate in the United States about gun control is the international impact of lax American gun laws, especially in Latin America. For example, 74 percent of homicides in the Americas are carried out with a firearm. Brazil has the highest number of yearly gun homicides in the world, followed by Colombia, Mexico, and Venezuela. The ten countries with the highest rates of gun homicide in the world, led by Honduras, are all Latin American or Caribbean states.
A new CFR Policy Innovation Memorandum, “A Strategy to Reduce Gun Trafficking and Violence in the Americas,” lays out the effects of U.S. gun laws well beyond American borders. Between 2010 and 2012, gun traffickers attempted to smuggle about a quarter million firearms, worth about $127.7 million, from the United States into Mexico. While Mexican border authorities seized about 12.7 percent of illicit weapons flowing south, U.S. authorities intercepted only 2 percent, allowing as many as two hundred thousand weapons to pass the dragnet undisturbed. The homicide rate in Mexico declined every year that the federal assault-weapons ban was in place, only to begin growing again in 2004, two years before President Felipe Calderón deployed armed forces against drug cartels, resulting in an eruption of violence. Indeed, in the two years since the assault-weapons ban was allowed to lapse, gun homicide rates spiked in Mexican towns along the borders of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, yet not in towns bordering California, where a state assault-weapons ban remained in place.
The regional spillover effects of U.S. gun laws are one issue. As pernicious, and detrimental to American standing abroad, has been the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) international strategy. For example, the NRA took pride in obstructing the progress of the UN Arms Trade Treaty, and assisted the opponents of a 2005 referendum in Brazil that would have banned the sale of guns and ammunition to private citizens.
Although many of the forty-five to eighty million guns currently in circulation in Latin America are holdovers from past civil wars and insurgencies, local efforts to reduce stocks of illicit weapons will founder if smugglers continue to replace Cold War-era decommissioned rifles with the most advanced assault weapons the U.S. market can provide.
Containing the southbound flow of firearms in an essential task in the Obama administration’s efforts to promote stability and the rule of law, and combat transnational organized crime, in Latin America. The United States can’t eliminate gun violence or the inequality and weak institutions that perpetuate it. But by creating a bit of a firewall between the U.S. domestic firearms market and illicit weapons markets in Latin America, Washington can help governments in the region to reduce a massive security problem and perhaps even regain considerable lost standing in the region while we’re at it.
Read the full report: “A Strategy to Reduce Gun Trafficking and Violence in the Americas.”