Policy

Mexico Shows That Tight Gun Control Laws Don't Guarantee Compliance

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Alex LeBaron

Wearer-of-bad-rugs Bob Costas may have temporarily put gun control back in the headlines, but his advocacy hasn't made firearms restrictions any less intrusive — or any more enforceable. Like fans of all sorts of restrictions, drugs especially, gun controllers tend to jump from fantasies about a world devoid of the objects of their wrath to demands that new laws be passed to make their fantasies come true. Rarely do they put much thought into whether anybody will actually obey such laws, and the consequences of littering the landscape with impotent legislation. I've written before that gun laws tend to be widely flouted, and a peek at our neighbor to the south offers more evidence of such widespread defiance.

Mexico is actually sometimes held up as an example of exemplary gun laws. Despite a sort-of constitutional guarantee of the right to bear arms, Mexico has only one gun store, which is run by the army, and severe legal restrictions on gun ownership. From the New York Times:

The 1917 Constitution written after Mexico's bloody revolution, for example, says that the right to carry arms excludes those weapons forbidden by law or reserved for use by the military, and it also states that "they may not carry arms within inhabited places without complying with police regulations."

The government added more specific limits after the uprisings in the 1960s, when students looted gun stores in Mexico City. So under current law, typical customers like Rafael Vargas, 43, a businessman from Morelos who said he was buying a pistol "to make sure I sleep better," must wait months for approval and keep his gun at home at all times.

His purchase options are also limited: the largest weapons in Mexico's single gun store — including semiautomatic rifles like the one used in the Aurora attack — can be bought only by members of the police or the military. Handgun permits for home protection allow only for the purchase of calibers no greater than .38, so the most exotic option in the pistol case here consisted of a Smith & Wesson revolver selling for $803.05.

So, the country is largely disarmed, right? Not so much. Put aside the well-armed drug cartels; average Mexicans don't let the country's laws get too much in their way. From Austin, Texas's KVUE:

Mexico has some of the toughest gun control laws in the world. But while drug cartels have well-stocked arsenals, law-abiding citizens struggle to get a permit to own a gun.

Even so,  in the seemingly tranquil region of northern Mexico, at the foot of the Sierra Madre Mountains, it's an open secret that many people have guns for protection.

"Most Mexican families do have guns in their homes, and they're illegal," said Alex LeBaron, a Chihuahua state representative and native of the town of LeBaron.

The Geneva-based Small Arms Survey estimated (PDF) in 2007 that Mexicans owned about 15.5 million guns, of which 4.5 million were registered in compliance with the law. As NPR noted in a story on this same issue, Mexico has no real gun-rights movement largely because people don't perceive a need for one:

The director of a pro-gun website called Mexico Armado said there is no popular movement at the moment to liberalize the nation's gun laws. Perhaps, he added, that's because anybody who wants a weapon in Mexico — be they a good guy or a bad guy — has no problem getting one.

The assumption is that most black-market guns come from the United States (and not all of it from the BATF). Though, with the drug cartels arming themselves with military-grade weapons that are distinctly not available north of the border, that's obviously not the only possible source,

By the way, Alex LeBaron, the lawmaker quoted above, comes from a family descended from Mormon polygamists who fled to Mexico in the 19th century to escape American restrictions on their religion (the Romney family was included in that circle, for a while). Not only have LeBarons become Mexico's most visible gun-rights advocates, they're practitioners, too. Again, from NPR:

One night, in October 2009, a gunfight erupted between the LeBaron brothers and a squad from the Mexican army. The LeBarons claim the soldiers came to the front gate and did not identify themselves. Fearing they were kidnappers, Alex says, the family opened fire.

"In the middle of [the] dark, sometimes, it's better to shoot and ask questions later," he says.

One soldier was killed. One LeBaron brother and another farmer were charged with murder, but the judge ultimately dropped the charges because the evidence had been tampered with.

That firefight came after a family member and a friend were killed by criminals for organizing opposition to kidnappers. Not surprisingly, the community in which the LeBaron family lives, and which carries their name, has apparently since gained a reputation as a place to be avoided by criminals.

In a country where violent crime thrives amidst Costas-style gun restrictions, people have taken to openly ignoring the law to defend themselves. There's no reason to think matters would be much different north of the border.

By the way, don't miss Brian Doherty's take on how D.C.'s crime rate is down despite looser gun restrictions.