Do U.S. Gun Laws Make All of North America Less Safe?

While a real conversation over gun control in the U.S. is a domestic nonstarter, neighboring countries end up suffering from lax American laws

  • Share
  • Read Later
Raymundo Ruiz / AP

Soldiers put the final touches on a giant billboard made with crushed firearms placed near the U.S. border in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico

Looming over the aftermath of the Aurora shooting is the long-standing and largely fruitless American debate over gun control. My colleague Alex Altman wrote lucidly about the paralysis that grips many U.S. politicians on both sides of the aisle when forced to account for a tragedy of this magnitude. More stringent controls could have thwarted the shooting suspect from spending months undetected while he amassed an arsenal of assault weapons, heavy ammunition and body armor. But the strength of the gun lobby in Washington — and the necessity for politicos there to embrace, with great piety and few questions, a more than two-century-old document — means that a real national conversation around gun control is a nonstarter.

Lost in the bluster and political gamesmanship is the fact that, whether Americans want to do something about the guns in their midst or not, their lax laws are hurting other countries, especially the neighbors to the north and south. Sure, Canada and Mexico are two vastly different polities, with different problems and with police forces in considerably different states of preparedness. But both countries can rightly point the finger at the U.S. for the prevalence of gun-related homicides on their side of the border.

(MORE: A Gun Owner’s Case Against Assault Weapons)

Just this week, Canadian officials in Ontario convened what was dubbed the Summit of the Gun — a reaction to a summer of shootings in Toronto, the country’s most populous city. While certain measures were passed to strengthen policing and improve community outreach, the elephant in the room was obvious. Canada is hardly a gun-free country, but its rates of civilian firearm ownership are dwarfed by those in the U.S., and the weapons its citizens do possess are far better monitored. Recent calls to ban handguns in places like Toronto, some argue, would do little to stem the flow of guns trafficked from the U.S. over the 8,000-km, thinly patrolled boundary.

“The fact of the matter is,” said Ontario’s provincial premier, Dalton McGuinty, “most of the guns that end up in the hands of young criminals are illegal guns, and they’re coming from south of the border.” His comments followed a meeting with Conservative Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper on the matter. An editorial in The Globe and Mail tut-tutted at what it deemed U.S. intransigence in the face of an obvious truth: “The stubborn [American] refusal to link the worldwide availability of American-supplied semiautomatic weapons, accessories and ammunition to tragedy after tragedy is a black mark.”

The blackest of those marks lies in Mexico, where tens of thousands have died in the past decade, casualties of a grisly narcowar that’s fueled both by the American appetite for illegal drugs moving north as well as by firearms acquired legally and illegally in the U.S. moving south. Of course, all the blame for the chaos can’t be laid at Washington’s feet; Mexico, as TIME’s Latin America bureau chief Tim Padgett has written on many occasions, must wrestle with its own toxic history of corruption, poor governance and an earlier complicit acceptance of the cartels. But Mexican law, at least in theory, makes it far tougher for ordinary civilians to acquire the sort of heavy weaponry in the cartels’ — and the Aurora shooter’s — arsenal. A revision to the country’s constitution in 1917 effectively put the Mexican government and military directly in charge of licensing and selling firearms.

(VIDEO: Evidence of Killings and Disappearances by Mexico’s Security Forces)

Weapons obtained and smuggled back from border states in the U.S. take up the bulk of the cartels’ firepower. A study by three American academics, published this March, examined murder rates in Mexico after a Clinton-era U.S. federal ban on assault weapons expired in 2004. They found that Mexican localities that bordered U.S. states where those weapons were legally back on the market saw a considerable uptick in gun-related fatalities. The report’s abstract elaborates:

The expiration relaxed the permissiveness of gun sales in border states such as Texas, Arizona and New Mexico, but not California, which retained a pre-existing state-level ban. Using mortality statistics over 2002–06, we show that homicides, gun-related homicides and crime gun seizures increased … in Mexican municipios located closer to entry ports in these other border states, [but less so among those near] entry ports in California. Our estimates suggest that the U.S. policy change caused at least 239 additional deaths annually in municipios near the border during post-2004 period.

This is before 2006 when then Mexican President Felipe Calderón commenced a military offensive on the cartels that has only ramped up the violence. While tighter American gun laws wouldn’t be a panacea, they could have saved hundreds of lives. Arindrajit Dube, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a co-author of the study, points to the awkwardness of U.S. domestic policy fomenting instability elsewhere. “If we saw this dynamic happening in some country in Africa,” he says, “we’d say this looks fundamentally like a failed or failing state.” While the world’s sole superpower is not en route to becoming Somalia, it is, in this context, failing its neighbors.

PHOTOS: Gun Culture U.S.A.