Gun control has become a central issue in this last U.S. election cycle for the first time since 2000, following the horrific mass shootings of Tyrone, Missouri in February, the Charleston church shooting in June, the Umpqua Community College shooting in October, and the San Bernadino shooting in December. These, of course, are only the mass shootings that made national and international headlines; according to the Mass Shooting Tracker there were more than 330 mass shootings in 2015. In the previously mentioned four shootings alone, 43 people lost their lives. The “gun problem”, however, is much worse than this number suggests. The CDC reports that in 2013, 33,636 people lost their lives to firearms. For a point of reference, a nearly identical number of people— 33,804— lost their lives in motor vehicle incidents. While in the U.S. the debate has centered on how and when a constitutional right should be limited for the sake of the public good, it has not paid sufficient attention to how lax gun purchase regulations influences neighboring countries through illicit, small-scale arms trafficking.
Traces successfully conducted on guns found in Mexico show that 90% of them originated in the U.S. A study conductedby the University of San Diego’s Trans-Border Institute and the Igarapé Institute found that nearly half (46.7%) of U.S. small arms sellers rely on some amount of demand from the U.S.-Mexico border. It signaled that the firearms flows across the border are likely to continue to increase, with authorities seizing only a minority (14.7%) of total arms trafficked. Another study conducted by the Wilson Center likewise highlights how arms trafficked from the U.S. also reach Guatemala in large numbers, suggesting that these illicit flows also have significant influence in Central America. The Small Arms Survey also published an occasional paper that shows that most firearms seized in Jamaica are traced back to the U.S. These illicit flows are not only flowing south, scholars likewise highlight how the majority of successfully traced firearms seized in Canada originate in the U.S.
However, data scarcity keeps us from truly knowing the magnitude of the problem. The proportion of firearms in these countries with U.S. provenance is anybody’s guess. The 90% figure cited above comes from a 2009 Government Accountability Office report to the U.S. Congress; many media outlets incorrectly extrapolated the proportion of successfully traced firearms seized to all illicit firearms in the country. The same can be said of figures coming from seized guns in Guatemala and Jamaica. Seized guns may not be representative of the guns in use, and of those seized only some can be traced, as smugglers often deface or eliminate guns’ serial numbers. The very clandestine nature of this issue makes it difficult to measure its consequences; policy makers and advocates need more and higher quality data.
Still, bad data is better than no data at all, and the patchy and incomplete figures we have all point to a significant portion— if not a majority— of illegal guns in these neighboring countries come from U.S. retailers. Couple this with consistent analyses conducted by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, which show that more guns are associated with more homicides across a variety of comparative frameworks, and the negative consequences of U.S. gun policy for these countries become evident. Jamaica, Mexico, and Guatemala all suffer from high homicide rates, which while not caused by U.S. gun policy, are arguably aggravated by it. Gun advocates may argue that the studies cited do not prove that guns cause higher homicide rates. Nonetheless, this critique is disingenuous at best, as in order to conclusively prove there is a causal mechanism at work, one would have to conduct a controlled experiment in which communities are given different proportions of guns and measure how this variation affects homicide rates. Ethics does not even begin to cover the moral issues with such a proposition. Short of such an experiment, these consistent correlational studies suggest that greater availability of guns increases violence in a given country.
The international community has mobilized to ensure that licit transfers of small arms follow basic human rights principles to ensure that it does not threaten regional peace, human development, or facilitate repression and violence through the 2013 Arms Trade Treaty. However, arms trafficking as illicit transnational flows fall outside the purview of this international legal instrument. As the UN Office on Drugs and Crime points out, this issue can best be addressed through stronger domestic regulation and transnational coordination. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has already begun efforts in the mid-2000s to coordinate with other law enforcement agencies in these countries to trace arms and shut down smuggling channels. However, without addressing the underlying problem of permissive U.S. gun regulation these efforts are likely to only have limited results.
The debate currently taking place in the U.S. regarding gun control is an important democratic process through which citizens can determine the appropriate balance of individual constitutional freedoms (the right to bear arms) and collective rights (security). But what of the Mexicans, Jamaicans, Guatemalans, Canadians, and likely many others that see themselves affected by this domestic policy? Global markets have linked our fates, but we lack adequate political mechanisms to consider the full extent of the benefits and costs produced by this policy. Civil society has a key role to play here in order to magnify the voices of those not currently being considered in the debate, so that transnational coordination is not limited to law enforcement but also policy itself. Obama’s announcement to pass an executive order to impose stricter controls is a step in the right direction. However, it’s not just U.S. children that are put at risk by this policy. Many more lives are at play in this debate. It’s time we take them into account as well.
*Sean Luna McAdams is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia).