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Guns bought from vendors in the United States and then smuggled illegally abroad are a fact of life across the Americas. But the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, this month have emboldened foreign stances against lax U.S. gun laws and shifted conversations about what that means for crime and safety north and south of the U.S. border.
Weaker gun regulations in the U.S. have long undermined Canada’s much stricter rules, as guns get trafficked north. The U.S. massacres came the same weekend as 17 shootings in 14 different incidents across Toronto. Border Security Minister Bill Blair said Canada could reduce violence with more money toward stopping guns from the U.S., which he called “the greatest arsenal in the world.”
Some 70% of guns recovered by law enforcement in Mexico and sent to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) between 2011 and 2016 were originally purchased from a licensed U.S. dealer. And of course, more than a third of those killed were Mexican citizens – prompting a withering response from Mexico.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador urged U.S. leaders to reflect upon the “indiscriminate sale of guns.” Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard went further, threatening to open up a terrorist probe across the border.
America’s neighbors have long lived with the cross-border creep of U.S. gun culture – sometimes with outrage, often with a sense of resignation.
But the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, this month have emboldened foreign stances against lax U.S. gun laws and shifted conversations about what that means for crime and safety north and south of the U.S. border.
The shooting inside a Walmart in El Paso that claimed 22 lives in a matter of minutes was far more than just an American tragedy. More than a third of the victims counted in the death toll were Mexican citizens – prompting a rare, withering response south of the border.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador urged U.S. leaders from both parties to consider and reflect upon the “indiscriminate sale of guns,” he said in a press conference after the attack. Mexico’s Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard went further, threatening to open up a terrorist probe across the border.
“It is unusual in the sense that it’s trying to send a stronger message that the gun problem is a bi-national problem,” says David Ramirez, who heads the security program at México Evalúa, a Mexico City think tank that evaluates government action.
American guns bought from vendors in the U.S. and then smuggled illegally abroad are a fact of life across the Americas. According to an analysis by the Center for American Progress, using data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), some 70% of guns recovered by law enforcement in Mexico and sent to the ATF for tracing between 2011 and 2016 were originally purchased from a licensed dealer in the U.S. Some estimates put the number of U.S. weapons smuggled from the U.S. into Mexico at over 200,000 a year.
Mexican officials, in their fight against drug violence, have long pleaded with the U.S. to stem the southward flow of guns. Former President Felipe Calderón famously had a billboard erected in Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso, that read “No More Weapons,” spelled out with confiscated, destroyed weapons.
But most of his presidency – and the Mexican focus generally – has been on perpetrators and rampant impunity in Mexico. That’s especially true as the “drug war” started under Mr. Calderón consumed Mexican politics.
“When violence started in 2007, my perception was everything was drug-related. The drug war seemed to be everything, despite the fact that other forms of violence were also rising,” says Eugenio Weigend, associate director for gun violence prevention at the Center for American Progress and co-author of the analysis.
That is also despite research showing that when the U.S. assault weapon ban expired in 2004, Mexican municipalities on the border with the U.S. saw a spike in homicides, he says.
“I do see some recognition now that this is beyond drugs, and that guns play a major, major role,” Mr. Weigend says. That includes think tanks, students, and civil society groups speaking out more against the implications of U.S. gun flows to Mexico.
In Canada, attitudes about guns are toughening too – as Canadians have gotten spooked that the violence south of the border is moving north.
The El Paso and Dayton shootings made front-page news in Canada, but it came alongside domestic stories of Canada’s own gun problems. Over what was a long weekend in Toronto, local headlines were dominated by 17 shootings in 14 different incidents across the city.
Weaker gun regulations in the U.S. have long undermined Canada’s much stricter rules, as guns get trafficked north. Last week Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction Minister Bill Blair said Canada could reduce violence with more money towards stopping guns from the U.S., which he called “the greatest arsenal in the world.”
‘I think we are at a tipping point’
But as gun incidents have increased, especially in Toronto, the government is facing new pressure for more gun control, including with a ban on handguns.
One group on the forefront pushing for tougher laws is the Canadian Doctors for Protection from Guns (CDPG), which was formally launched in February. The group’s leading voice is Najma Ahmed, a trauma surgeon in Toronto who says she is increasingly in the operating room dealing with gunshot injuries, including after a rare mass shooting on a Toronto street on a summer evening that killed two girls just over a year ago.
CDPG’s work would be aided by tougher American gun laws, Dr. Ahmed says, as a significant percentage of guns used in crime in Canada come from the U.S. “I certainly would like to see a decrease in the proliferation of guns in the U.S.; that would certainly make our job in Canada easier.”
But the group has applied pressure on politicians at home, calling for an outright ban on handguns and assault-style weapons. They support the passage of Bill C-71 this spring, which tightens record keeping requirements and other regulations for gun owners. But they say the government must go much farther, and that for too long Canada has compared itself to the U.S. instead of peers with similar restrictive gun cultures like the United Kingdom. “I think we are at a tipping point,” Dr. Ahmed says.
As groups have pushed for tighter gun laws, especially ahead of federal elections in October, gun advocates have pushed back in U.S.-style polarization around guns that is new for Canada.
Tracey Wilson, vice president of public relations for the Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights, says a mass shooting in the U.S. always gets intertwined with the situation at home, especially when sharing attention with Toronto violence. “It sort of triggers people to be afraid that the violence that we see here could increase to that level. And I think it's valid that they have concerns about that, because I think we all do,” she says. “However, you know all the evidence is extremely clear, and Canadians know it's not sport shooters and duck hunters running around the streets shooting people up.”
The CDPG – who criticize the Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights for adopting NRA-style harassment tactics, which the coalition denies – say this takes away from the issue at hand. “There's a simple irrefutable fact, which is the less guns there are in the country the less deaths and injuries there are in the country from guns no matter where they're from,” says Philip Berger, the former chief of family and community medicine at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto and a founder of the CDPG.
According to Statistics Canada, firearm-related crime has gone up by 42% since 2013. Each year since 2009, about six in ten firearm-related violent crimes involved handguns.
An opportunity for Mexico?
Mexico has seen an uptick in gun violence too. It recorded its highest homicide rate in history in 2018. Mexico's Secretariat of Security and Citizen Protection released a report showing over 33,300 intentional homicides last year. That was a 15 percent increase over 2017, which previously held the record. The Center for American Progress study also shows an increase in recent years in guns used in homicides in Mexico.
But it’s the current political climate that could firm up the government’s pressure on the U.S. The current Mexican government has ceded to President Trump’s demands that it staunch the flow of Central American migrants heading to the U.S. or face tariffs. Mexican officials want to show the public that they can get something back.
And the El Paso shooting in particular – an attack in a Latino city that the Spanish newspaper El País called “greatest racist crime against Hispanics in modern United States history” – is a point of mobilization.
John Lindsay-Poland, a U.S.-based researcher and activist for stopping U.S. legal arms sales to Mexico, says it shifts attention among the Mexican public to the white nationalist threat that they face – and to focus attention on the gun politics that are changing in the U.S.
“The current of controlling guns and of preventing gun violence in the United States has grown enormously, so I do think there's a possible inflection point within the U.S. And for Mexicans I think that becomes an important piece because so many Mexicans are just resigned that things are never going to change,” he says. “But I think it is possible to achieve some changes that would be meaningful for Mexico and not just meaningful for the U.S.”
“They could begin to frame the violence in Mexico as around guns not, not just around criminal organizations, impunity, or drugs.”