253K U.S. guns cross into Mexico

Smuggling trade valued at $127M a year, study says

By Tim Johnson

McClatchy Newspapers

Published: Sunday, March 24 2013 9:15 p.m. MDT

In this Feb. 17, 2012 file photo, soldiers put final touches on a giant "No More Weapons" billboard made with crushed firearms placed near the U.S. border in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico Friday Feb. 17, 2012.

Raymundo Ruiz, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

MEXICO CITY — Some 2.2 percent of all U.S. gun sales are made to smuggling rings that take firearms to Mexico, a scale of illegal trafficking that's "much higher than widely assumed," an academic study found.

An average of 253,000 weapons purchased in the United States head south of the border each year, according to the study by four scholars at the University of San Diego's Trans-Border Institute and the Igarape Institute, a research center in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Profit margins at many gun stores are razor thin, and thousands of U.S. gun vendors would go out of business without the illicit traffic to Mexico, said Topher McDougal, an economist educated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is one of the study's authors.

The study's conclusions are likely to add to controversy over what role U.S. weapons smugglers play in Mexico's drug violence. Mexican officials have long blamed lax gun laws in the United States for the availability of weapons in Mexico, which has only one gun store and considers gun ownership a privilege, not a right.

The value of the annual smuggling trade is $127.2 million, says last week's study, "The Way of the Gun: Estimating Firearms Traffic Across the U.S.-Mexico Border."

The traffic is reflected in the disproportionately high number of federally licensed firearms dealers along the U.S. side of the border, said Robert Muggah, another of the four scholars. Of the 51,300 retail gun shops in the United States that hold federal licenses, some 6,700 of them are concentrated in the four U.S. states that border Mexico, Muggah said. On average, there are more than three gun dealers for every mile of the 1,970-mile border between the countries.

"The Mexican demand explains that abundance and the successful nature of the business," Muggah said.

Another key indicator of the U.S. influence over gun availability in Mexico is the fact that many killings in Mexico are carried out with handguns, not the high-powered assault weapons that garner much of the attention related to the country's violence.

"The vast majority of deaths arising from violence in Mexico are from .38s or that caliber of handgun," Muggah said. "It just so happens that the largest market for .38 Specials is the United States."

The scholars said their study was the first "empirically robust" effort to "estimate the total flow of arms" heading south from the United States. The authors said they had determined the likely traffic to Mexico by a complex statistical formula that measured how close a federally licensed dealer was to the Mexican border, then factored out likely local legal demand, based on population and income.

"These findings suggest that the United States is a significant, albeit unintentional, contributor to the global black market in arms and ammunition (and specifically in Mexico)," the study says.

About 2,200 U.S. manufacturers of firearms, ammunition and parts produce a total of 4.2 million firearms a year, the study says. One in every four Americans owns a firearm, it adds.

Mexico's sole gun store, operated by the Defense Secretariat in Mexico City, sells largely .38-caliber or smaller firearms and only to those who obtain licenses first.

Even so, members of organized crime have amassed a growing arsenal of outlawed weapons, including 9 mm pistols, .38-caliber "super" pistols, .45-caliber pistols, AR-15 and AK-47-type assault rifles, grenades and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, the study notes.

Mexican police and soldiers have seized some 140,000 weapons since 2006, when former President Felipe Calderon deployed soldiers and federal police units to contain violence between crime groups and to hunt drug lords.

A soaring homicide rate cast a cloud over much of his six-year term. Some 120,000 homicides occurred while he was in office, and at least 60,000 of them appeared to involve criminal gangs, the study says.

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