Drug Control Begets Gun Control

The violence in Mexico is caused by prohibition, not firearms.


During his April visit to Mexico, President Barack Obama suggested that Americans are partly to blame for the appalling violence associated with the illegal drug trade there. "The demand for these drugs in the United States is what's helping keep these cartels in business," he said. "This war is being waged with guns purchased not here but in the United States."

Obama is right that the U.S. is largely responsible for the carnage in Mexico, which claimed more than 6,000 lives last year. But the problem is neither the drugs Americans buy nor the guns they sell; it's the war on drugs our government has drafted the rest of the world to fight. Instead of acknowledging the failure of drug control, Obama is using it as an excuse for an equally vain attempt at gun control.

"More than 90 percent of the guns recovered in Mexico come from the United States," Obama claimed, repeating a favorite factoid of politicians who believe American gun rights endanger our southern neighbor's security. The claim has been parroted by many news organizations, including ABC, which used it in a 2008 story that suggested the sort of policy changes the number is meant to encourage. The story, which asked if "the Second Amendment [is] to blame" for "arming Mexican drug gangs," quoted an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives who said, "It's virtually impossible to buy a firearm in Mexico as a private citizen, so this country is where they come."

But as Fox News and Factcheck.org have shown, the percentage cited by the president greatly exaggerates the share of guns used by Mexican criminals that were bought in the United States. Fox estimates it's less than a fifth, while Factcheck.org says it may be more like a third.

If the guns used by Mexican drug traffickers do not mainly come from gun dealers in the U.S., where do they come from? Many of the weapons are stolen from the Mexican military and police, often by deserters; some are smuggled over the border from Guatemala; others come from China by way of Africa or Latin America. Russian gun traffickers do a booming business in Mexico.

Given these alternatives, making it harder for Americans to buy guns is not likely to stop Mexican gangsters from arming themselves. The persistence of the drug traffickers' main business, which consists of transporting and selling products that are entirely illegal on both sides of the border, should give pause to those who think they can block the flow of guns to the cartels.

The futile effort to stop Americans from consuming politically incorrect intoxicants is the real source of the violence in Mexico, since prohibition creates a market with artificially high prices and hands it over to criminals. "Because of the enormous profit potential," two senior federal law enforcement officials told the Senate Judiciary Committee in March, "violence has always been associated with the Mexican drug trade as criminal syndicates seek to control this lucrative endeavor."

The more the government cracks down on the black market it created, the more violence it fosters, since intensified enforcement provokes confrontations with the police and encourages fighting between rival gangs over market opportunities created by arrests or deaths. "If the drug effort were failing," an unnamed "senior U.S. official" told The Wall Street Journal in February, "there would be no violence."

Perhaps it is time to redefine failure. Three former Latin American presidents, including Mexico's Ernesto Zedillo, recently noted that "we are farther than ever from the announced goal of eradicating drugs." The attempt to achieve that impossible dream, they observed, has led to "a rise in organized crime," "the corruption of public servants," "the criminalization of politics and the politicization of crime," and "a growth in unacceptable levels of drug-related violence."

Instead of importing Mexico's prohibitionist approach to guns, we should stop exporting our prohibitionist approach to drugs.

Senior Editor Jacob Sullum (jsullum@reason.com) is a nationally syndicated columnist. Copyright 2009 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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  1. The War on Drugs Sanity continues. Since even discussing legalization of reefer carries too many poitical risks for our hope and CHANGE! persident, maybe The Chosen One should joke about drug cartel violence in his next press conference.

    Damn, this constant denial of reality by our political “leaders” infuriates me to no end.

  2. violence in Mexico is caused by prohibition

    In a sane world, the above statement would be met with “DuuUUuuhh”

  3. violence in Mexico is caused by prohibition

    Any chance that the people who are actually violent have some responsibility for their actions? They would all be interns at stock brokerships if it wasn’t for drug prohibition? How about all the kidnappings in Mexico? Is that a result of Prohibition also? Any chance that Mexicans might actually be responsible for Mexican culture?

    How come there isn’t equal violence in Canada? Prohibition certainly contributes to the violence in Mexico but it is hardly the cause of it.

  4. Factcheck.org says it may be more like a third

    You mean the same “Factcheck.org” funded by the Annenburg Foundation which also funded the “community organizing” activities of Barak Obama and Bill Ayers? Yeah, they are all about “facts”. Kind of like quoting Pew the day after they admitted that they made up the whole push for “campaign finance reform”?

  5. Marshall

    If Factcheck is in Obama’s and Bill Ayre’s pockets why aren’t they using BO’s phonus bolonus 90% number?

  6. Mr. Gill: The claim isn’t that all violence is caused by prohibition. You rightly point out that prohibition is a contibutor to the violence. Ending prohibition will lessen the violence. There isn’t more violence in Canada because there hasn’t been an equal crackdown on the trade as there has been in Mexico the past few years. Ending the drug war will diminish the power of the violent criminals profiting from it. That’s a victory for us. Maintaining the war empowers them. That’s surrender.

  7. Prohibition certainly contributes to the violence in Mexico but it is hardly the cause of it.

    It’s the enabling agent. In a civilized country most violent people get arrested and put in prison. Prohibition results in giving violent people a product they can sell to people. They become dealers instead of burglars, robbers, etc. That gives dealers access to social influence (my friendly bootlegger), political influence (my friendly campaign contributor), and cash. Cash allows the dealers to hire henchmen and buy them guns. Because the dealers can’t use the law to settle differences they become more violent. The most violent among them prosper. As they become more violent and more prosperous they branch out into additional prohibited activities. When they become more powerful than the government that otherwise would restrain them, you have a situation like Mexico.

    The more stuff you prohibit, including guns, the more the dealers prosper and the more violent they get.

  8. Mr. Gill: The claim isn’t that all violence is caused by prohibition.

    But it was the claim. Here is the exact quote from the article.

    The futile effort to stop Americans from consuming politically incorrect intoxicants is the real source of the violence in Mexico

    Now perhaps Jacob really meant “is a great contributor to the violence in Mexico” but that is not what he said.

    Failure to include personal responsibility is something that the Leftarded do and which Reason should avoid. Saying “government policies force people to act violently” is bullshit, even if government action does contribute.

  9. Counter-economics in practice?

  10. Since guns and ammo are illegal in Mexico, at least we know that the drug cartels are using swords and crossbows which are less deadly.

  11. “The real source” doesn’t mean 100%, it means it’s the main factor. Without all that drug money most of them would have to find another occupation.

  12. The real source” doesn’t mean 100%, it means it’s the main factor. Without all that drug money most of them would have to find another occupation.

    Personal choice is the “main factor” in ALL human actions. Yes, they would have to find another occupation, but what evidence is there that it wouldn’t involve violence? It is kind of hard to connect the mass of kidnappings in Mexico City with US drug prohibition.

    Prohibition does provide an incentive for people to behave violently. They still must choose to do so. Ignoring or minimizing personal responsibility does not advance the Libertarian argument, IMO. I mean, if government doesn’t have the ability to remake me to be good, it doesn’t have the power to remake me to be bad, either.

  13. Let’s say our guns are responsible for Mexico’s violence (they are not, but I will humor the Beloved Leader). How is it our responsibility for their domestic problems? Why should we have to change our laws and restrict our rights to help them? Maybe Mexico should invest in some border control if all the guns are coming from us.

  14. Ejercito wins the thread 😀

  15. It seems to me, that our society places us squarely on the horn of dilemma. We don’t want people to use drugs because of the damage it does to them (fries their brains) so we assign drugs to the category of contraband. (As if that alone will make street drugs disappear.)

    Then, when people do fry their brains with drugs, and their lives become unmanageable, we the people in the form of various levels of govenment, take responsibility for them.

    Since it has proven to be nigh impossible to make street drugs disappear, how about instead we give back the responsibility for their lives to the people who chose to use drugs. If someone choses to use, and life becomes unmanageable, then it’s up to the individual drug user to either turn it around or take up a place in the local cemetery. After a while, the drug problem will take care of itself.

  16. “Fox estimates it’s less than a fifth, while Factcheck.org says it may be more like a third. ”

    The Government number is 90% of 17%. (About 15%) This is because only 17% have traceable marking like those required in countries with strict gun control.

    “How come there isn’t equal violence in Canada?”

    Because Canadians are busy watching American TV, smoking black market smokes (because of prohibitive Canadian taxes) from the US, and going to the States to pay cash for healthcare (because they have what Obama wants us to have).

    Much of the Mexican cartel problems actually come from south of the Mexican border.

    Who says there’s not violence in Canada? Vietnamese gangs with machineguns run rampant. Machine guns smuggled from asia. (But American smokes. Go figure) Made possible by Canadian gun bans.
    What? You don’t hear about this from American “mainstream” press? I’m shocked!

    Mexico’s problem is cultural. Drugs, tequila, Obama Motors Fiats, corn, etc. It doesn’t matter what the commodity is. It doesn’t matter what the profit margin is. These folks are going to prey on other folks. Just like many folks in urban areas of America. Give everyone in Detroit a million dollars, and some folks will be preying on others to take away their share. That’s just how it is.

    Listen to yourselves.

    (paraphrasing) “Liberals are lying and trying to use this as an excuse to abrogate Constitutionally protected rights. Therefore, we should take away the ‘cash cow’ that they are using as a centerpiece for their lie.”

    The author appears to decry the lies of Liberals, then uses those lies to endorse his wishes. (?)

    Why not just call a spade a spade? (In the politically correct sense) Loudly.

  17. “The futile effort to stop Americans from consuming politically incorrect intoxicants is the real source of the violence in Mexico”

    Mistuh Marshall? Even a schoolkid would understand that drug violence is a subset of ‘all violence’. Or do you suggest the drug trade is also responsible for domestic violence and child abuse too? I think not, if that’s what your deconstruction implied.

    “the violence in Mexico” phrase relates only to the context of drugs and “the” does not imply “all”.

  18. “the U.S. is largely responsible for the carnage in Mexico”

    No the people pulling the trigger are.

  19. Mr. Sullum thanks for the sanity.

  20. Was it FDR who thought the BRACERO program was a good idea? ….. Was it Jimma Cahtuh who thought the BOAT PEOPLE idea was a good move? ….. Was it Lincoln who said BLACK and WHITE cultures will never get along and that the freed and other BLACKS should be BOAT-PEOPLED back to Africa? ….. Is it BROWN SOCIETY that claims to be “A rich, and vibrant CALL-chure” (culture) that’s “Coping with the CHICANO STRAW-gull” (struggle) but who’re in competition with the other two trans-waters races (Rio Grande from MEH-hee-coe, Atlantic from Africa, Pacific from Asia) to be the single-worst thing America deals with? ….. Does JAPAN have such struggles? No. They’re almost all Japanese. Let’s take a lesson and make plans to sweep and clear our land. Otherwise, there’s no end.

  21. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight…the Bible’s books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on…the Bible’s books were written by people with very different mindsets…in order to really get the Books of the Bible, you have to cultivate such a mindset, it’s literally a labyrinth, that’s no jokeThe futile effort to stop Americans from consuming politically incorrect intoxicants is the real source of the violence in Mexico”

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