Made in the U.S.A.: The Role of American Guns in Mexican Violence

The Atlantic -- Topher McDougal is an assistant professor at the Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego. Robert Muggah is the research director of the Igarapé Institute and principal of the SecDev Group. David Shirk is the director of the Trans-Border Institute and associate professor of political science at the University of San Diego. John Patterson is a graduate of the Kroc School of Peace Studies.

As many as 120,000 people in Mexico have been murdered since 2006, many from a bullet to the back of the head. Most of these killings are committed not with assault rifles, but rather pistols and revolvers. Many are perpetrated by hit-men tied to narco-cartels, but some occur in confrontations with soldiers and police. What's more, the majority of guns causing mayhem on Mexico's streets are made in the United States. And for all their destructive power, no one seems to know just how many firearms are flowing into the country.

Mexico can hardly be described as a heavily armed society. With around 2.5 million registered gun owners and at least 13 million more illegal arms in circulation, the country has a ratio of just 15 guns for every 100 people, well below the global average. Unlike in the U.S., civilian possession in Mexico is considered a privilege, not a right and is tightly regulated under federal law since the 1970s. Extensive background checks are required of all purchasers, and there are heavy penalties and even imprisonment for non-compliance. Astonishingly, there is just one legal gun shop in the country, compared to more than 54,000 federally licensed firearm dealers and thousands of pawnshops and gun shows scattered across the U.S.

Yet in spite of tough gun laws in Mexico, the proportion of killings committed with firearms skyrocketed from around 20 percent in the mid-1990s to 50 percent in the past few years. What explains the sudden rise in gun violence?

A big part of the problem resides not in Mexico, but in the U.S. In an economic study conducted by the University of San Diego's Trans-Border Institute and the Brazil-based Igarapé Institute, we estimated the volume of firearms annually trafficked across the US-Mexico border. (Full Story