By Joy Olson
As we mourn the loss of so many lives in Newtown last Friday, this is one of those moments when you think dramatic change has to come. Now, at last, let us hope the United States will confront head on the consequences of our lax gun laws—especially the unspeakable horrors caused by the proliferation of assault weapons.
That a twenty-year old bent on killing first grade children had access to high-power, military style weaponry and a nearly unlimited supply of ammunition is unconscionable. It is long past time to take action to address this outrage before another town or school is added to the tragic litany of Aurora, Virginia Tech, Columbine, and so many others.
The failure to crack down on the sale of these weapons in the United States is fueling the violence taking place on an even larger scale in Mexico. The same military style assault weapons that have been used in massacres here are being bought in this country and trafficked across the border into the hands of vicious drug lords. Among the 100,000 who have been killed are innocent children, mothers, and fathers.
It is estimated that 70 percent of the guns seized in Mexico can be traced to the United States. While the changing dynamics of drug trafficking and competition for routes have been the main factor behind the rise in violence in Mexico, two distinct studies, one by scholars at New York University and the University of Massachusetts, and the other by an economist at the University of Notre Dame, have shown a causal link between the expiration of the U.S. assault weapons ban in 2004 and an increase in homicides in Mexico.
Many of these guns are purchased at gun shops in the United States by straw purchasers with a clean record, who then resell them to criminal arms traffickers. Others are bought at U.S. gun shows where guns can be bought and sold without background checks.
Although violence in Mexico and the United States takes place in very different contexts, some of the same policy solutions in the United States will have an impact in both countries. Here are things that could make a difference. The United States needs tough legislation to ban assault weapons. It needs to get rid of the loophole that allows guns sales to be made at gun shows without background checks. There needs to be prosecution and harsher sentencing for straw purchase offenses.
Here are some things that President Obama could do right now, without waiting for Congressional approval:
- Enforce the existing ban on the importation of foreign-made assault rifles;
- Expand the reporting rule for the multiple sale of assault weapons that is currently in effect for border states;
- Aggressively investigate firearm trafficking though enhanced scrutiny of gun traces and other available information;
- Enable state and local law enforcement to fully access to gun trace data; and
- Set up a bi-national commission that would work on both sides of the border to staunch the flow of illegal guns.
We have seen massacre after massacre in the United States and Mexico; we cannot wait any longer for solutions to gun violence.
Joy Olson is WOLA's Executive Director. She has spoken at the Woodrow Wilson Center, George Washington University, and the Americas Institute in San Diego on the issue of illegal arms trafficking to Mexico.