Regulating U.S.-Made Assault Weapons: The International Case

Some experts say ending the manufacture and sale of American AR-15s to Latin America would curb drug violence overseas. Why Washington would be smart to agree

Accused members ot the Zetas, arrested in Quintana Roo state, at a police press conference in Mexico City on May 28, 2011. (Jorge Lopez/Reuters)

The AR-15, which both Adam Lanza and James Holmes used in mass killings this year, appears to be a favorite of mass murderers, but it's also popular with Mexican and Brazilian drug traffickers. When Mexican police arrested 10 members of the Zetas drug cartel in Quintana Roo state last year, they picked up three AK-47s and five AR-15s along with them.

When Mexican traffickers are busted or their caches uncovered, high-powered, U.S.-manufactured assault rifles consistently turn up. Kidnap victims in Ciudad Juarez, the border city famous worldwide for its history of femicides, often turn up riddled with the bullet holes characteristic of semiautomatic weapons fire. In 2011, AFP reported that 70 percent of the illegal guns confiscated from Mexican drug cartels in the five years prior had been U.S.-made. The weapons are often purchased legally in the United States, but smuggled illegally across the border. Smugglers don't even have to justify buying large caches of weapons, as long as the dealer doesn't ask.

According to some anti-weapons activists, the AR-15 has also found its way to the favelas of urban Brazil, which often serve as waystations for the country's narcotraffickers. Drug gangs use favelas in major cities as their base of operations for various reasons, but two bear particularly on gun violence: The rule of law is very weak there -- there is little or no state presence in many favelas (although that has begun to change in some Rio favelas, with mixed results). And the density of settlement means that the noncombatants effectively serve as human shields.

This creates the perfect condition for mass civilian casualties every time there is a shootout between rival gangs, or between gang members and the police. In a context like this, more powerful guns are exponentially more lethal. A typical favela in central Rio is full of blind alleys and narrow roads and pathways, and the construction materials used in building homes don't always provide good cover. Add high-powered assault weapons, and it becomes a deathtrap.

In her book Favela, the sociologist Janice Perlman notes the use of military-grade weapons like AK-47s and AR-15s in Brazil's urban drug wars. (Both models, incidentally, are readily available at U.S. gun shows, though the former is not manufactured here.) How did the weapons make it into the hands of traffickers? According to Perlman, it's partly the fault of Rio de Janeiro city's notoriously corrupt police: "After they confiscate the weapons in one favela, they keep some and sell the rest to a gang in another favela." But a whole network of traffickers, and manufacturers, bears responsibility: "Most of these weapons are manufactured in the United States, Russia, and Europe. Some are swapped at the border of Paraguay for drugs, so that no cash is required, or sold by rebel armies such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)."

With multiple suppliers and middlemen, it's difficult to know where to start fighting the supply of assault weapons. In Rio, at least, once you're relying on the local police, it's too late to fix anything. (To be fair to those police, they are pathetically underpaid, and with their poor reputation the position has come to lack social prestige.)

The founder of the Observatório de Favelas, a social aid and policy organization based in a Rio favela, gives Perlman a suggestion. "If the United States really wanted to be a good neighbor and help the poor in Brazil," she reports him saying, "it would close down its weapons manufacturers or at least prohibit their export into Brazil, Mexico, and the other Latin American countries."

He's not the only activist to have had this thought. Mexicans partly blame the U.S. arms trade for drug-war-related violence in their country. In September, Salon ran an article on Mexican anti-violence activists who came to the U.S. to protest our lack of gun regulation.

At a gun show in Albuquerque, New Mexico, witnessing the ease with which Americans buy weapons was a great shock to the movement.

"It was easier for us to get a gun than a cell phone," said Araceli Rodriguez [the mother of a Mexican police officer murdered by drug dealers]. At a gun fair in NM, she was told she could have "all the weapons I want" as long as she had ID and "the money to buy them." When it came to a cell phone, however, payment plans and red tape took "five days so we could activate it, because they kept asking us for information that we didn't have. ...

"I cried because I saw mothers with their children in strollers, passing through like it was a park, as if they were looking at butterflies. There were these assault weapons, these huge guns that kill our people in Mexico, and 9- and 10-year-old children running around."

While Mexicans have a right to own arms, there is one store in the entire country where guns may be purchased legally: a military-owned shop in Mexico City. That means the overwhelming majority of all guns used in the traffic were smuggled in from abroad -- and it looks like the bulk are assault weapons coming from the U.S.

So if Washington just stopped exporting assault weapons, would the drug trade in these countries become less lethal? What if we stopped producing them altogether? How responsible are our guns for foreign deaths?

It's hard to know for sure, but going through some of the data can give us a couple of clues. Let's keep taking Brazil and Mexico as examples. Both countries are major centers of drug violence activity, and both have decried the role of U.S. guns in their armed drug conflicts.

Google has a beautiful data visualization of the global arms trade, which you can view here. If you click around the map, you'll notice a few things that may not surprise you, and a couple that may. On the less shocking end of things, the U.S. exported $600 million in weapons in 2010. A good portion of those went to Mexico, which got a little over half of its arsenal from the United States. These are government-authorized transactions, and most of the weapons went to the military.

What about illicit weapons? For that, we have to turn to data on police seizures, where they are available. Some police reporting may be unreliable, for reasons outlined above -- see, for instance, the Brazilian police who resell weapons. From Mexico, we get the shocking 70-percent figure reported by AFP that I mentioned above.

That said, it's not necessarily true that every Latin American country with a drug violence problem is packed solid with legal and illicit made-in-U.S.A. assault weapons. Of weapons seized by authorities in Brazil, the vast majority are domestically produced, although the U.S. is the largest producer of foreign-made weapons seized. (Brazil is actually the second-largest manufacturer of small arms in the Western Hemisphere, with a substantial export balance.)

On the other hand, it looks like the number of foreign-produced weapons seized in Brazil may be increasing. According to an academic study from 2005, only 1.4 percent to 1.6 percent of the weapons reported seized by police in Rio de Janeiro state were foreign-made, with lower figures in other states. In 2010, Brazil's Ministry of Justice stated that about 20 percent of guns seized that year were foreign-made. Of those guns, about 60 percent come from the U.S. As Brazil cracks down on its own gun manufacturers -- as it has started to, in response to drug violence -- the number of foreign-produced weapons smuggled into the country may increase.

A few complicating factors make it hard to know where in Latin America (or around the world) U.S.-manufactured weapons wind up. The team that put together the Google infographic notes that its map may not track weapons to their final destination. So, for instance, some of the U.S. weapons that are shown on the map as flowing to Mexico may in fact wind up in Central or South America, inflating somewhat the figure given for exports to our southern neighbor. This is even truer when we try to track illegal flows of arms, for obvious reasons. One recent example of this in the news: Guns that the Justice Department allowed smuggled into Mexico as part of the botched Fast and Furious program eventually made their way to Colombia.

What can we learn from the data? In Mexico, U.S.-made assault weapons do a tremendous amount of damage on their own. In Brazil, they're a substantial but not decisive part of a larger problem, one that involves domestically produced weapons and multiple exporting countries.

So how could the U.S. help solve the assault weapon crisis in Latin America? The data on arms in Mexico say we have a direct role to play. One step would be to begin regulating, or at least tracking, the sale of assault weapons. There isn't even a federal law requiring that owners register their guns. (Some states have passed such laws, but not all.)

The NRA has fought this measure for years on a civil liberties basis, saying the government has no right to collect data on gun owners. But keeping a record of which buyers have purchased guns in bulk would make it a lot easier to identify potential smugglers.

If the U.S. put stricter tracking and registration rules in place for weapons, and then actually used those rules to more effectively enforce its own smuggling laws, fewer assault weapons would reach narcotraffickers. If we banned the sale of assault weapons to U.S. civilians altogether, even better. The U.S. isn't their only source of weapons, but for many Latin American traffickers it is the largest, closest, and cheapest. No more U.S. assault weapons would force traffickers to turn to less accessible and more expensive sources -- raising their cost of doing business.

Where the weapons crisis is very complex, as in Brazil, just stopping the export and smuggling of assault weapons from the U.S. might not be enough. But the U.S. could also take the lead on international assault weapon regulation efforts. Think about the message that would send to the region, and the world.

Here is the great question: If the U.S. can't even pass legislation to regulate assault weapons within its own borders, how is it going to get its act together to regulate their sale to foreigners? I don't know how. Maybe it will come as an unintended consequence of an assault weapons ban.

But this is why we should. Drug violence overwhelmingly affects the poor. Psychologically, it is to many of these countries what terrorism is to the United States. Limiting the access of drug dealers to assault weapons is one way to bring down casualty counts in Latin America's drug conflicts.

If that's not enough, here's a more self-interested reason. After the elevated murder rates of the Calderón years, Mexicans have lost the political will to keep fighting drug cartels. New president Enrique Peña Nieto has said publicly that he plans to ease off enforcement if it means saving lives. On the drug issue, relations between the U.S. and Mexico appear tense. A good-faith effort from our side to bring down casualties in Mexico's drug conflict might make Mexicans more willing to work with us -- and spare us some of the violence (and the higher incarceration rates) that would accompany an increased flow of drugs into this country.