U.S. Gun Laws as a Scapegoat for Mexico’s Drug Violence

Officials, pundits, and gun control activists on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border habitually argue that allegedly lax gun laws in the United States bear heavy responsibility for the drug-related violence in Mexico. As I write over at the National Interest Online, the latest example of that reasoning is a new study from the Council on Foreign Relations arguing that the “flow of high-powered weaponry from the United States exacerbates the soaring rates” of such violence.

It is hardly a new argument. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton repeatedly embraced the Mexican government’s view that permissive U.S. gun laws were a major contributor to bloodletting in Mexico. In summit meetings with both the current Mexican president and his predecessor, President Obama has adopted a similar position. But that is merely a convenient scapegoat for the horrific violence in our southern neighbor. The underlying reason for Mexico’s agony is not the easy availability of guns, but the enormous profitability of the illegal drug trade and the various pathologies that it spawns, including violence and pervasive corruption.

Indeed, the argument that supposedly lax U.S. gun laws are a major reason for Mexico’s drug violence is a red herring. That’s not to say that the cartels don’t get some of their weaponry from gun shops, flea markets, pawn shops, and gun shows in the United States, as gun control zealots charge. They do, but they also get them from numerous other sources. As I note in chapter 9 of The Fire Next Door, my latest book on the international drug war, the cartels obtain weapons from the international black market, the armories of Central American countries the U.S. helped fill during the fight against communist insurgents during the 1980s, and even Mexico’s own military depots.

The principal reason the drug gangs can obtain all the firepower they want is that they have vast financial resources at their disposal. Mexico’s share of the annual $300 billion to $350 billion global trade in illegal drugs is estimated to be at least $35 billion, and perhaps as much as $60 billion. The U.S.-led prohibition strategy is largely responsible for that perverse situation. Banning marijuana, cocaine, and other drugs today does not work any better than the prohibition of alcohol did in the 1920s and early 1930s. In both cases, it merely inflated profits and guaranteed that the trade would be dominated by violent criminals.

If we really want to help Mexico curb the carnage that has claimed more than 80,000 lives over the past 6 ½ years, the United States needs to adopt a strategy that de-funds the drug cartels. That means ending prohibition, not pursuing the quixotic goal of tougher gun laws.