Way of the Gun: Half of U.S. Firearms Retailers Rely on Mexico’s Demand


This is my latest post from the US Institute of Peace International Network for Economics and Conflict. You can find it originally published on the INEC blog here.

Gun control may be off the table in the U.S. Congress, but the issue of gun violence – increasingly a matter of international relations for the U.S. – remains. President Obama spoke in Mexico City several weeks ago, and his statements echoed the findings of a new study estimating the traffic of firearms across the U.S.-Mexico border: “most of the guns used to commit violence here in Mexico come from the United States.”

The new report, Way of the Gun: Estimating Firearms Traffic Across the U.S.-Mexico Border, is published by the University of San Diego Trans-Border Institute (TBI) and the Igarapé Institute of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The authors – Topher McDougal, David A. Shirk, Robert Muggah, and James H. Patterson – are the first to develop an econometric model to estimate the volume, dollar value, and demand for guns moving from the U.S. into Mexico. They find that roughly 47 percent of federally licensed firearms retailers in the U.S. would go out of business without this cross-border demand.

Mexico has experienced a significant increase in gun violence since 2006, much of it drug-trade related. But, as the report notes, Mexico has some of the most restrictive firearms regulations in the world. Mexico has approximately 15 (registered and illegal) firearms per 100 people, and there is only one gun retailer in the entire country. Their northern neighbor, the U.S., however, is the world’s most heavily armed society, with approximately 90 firearms per 100 people and more than 50,000 federally licensed retailers.

“It is assumed,” the authors write, “that a considerable proportion of weapons in Mexico are illegal, most having been trafficked from the United States.” However, figures for the total volume of trafficking between the countries have been difficult to calculate. Estimates are usually based on the quantity of arms seized by law enforcement, so thus rely on assumptions about what percent of the total trafficked weapons officials are able to recover. Alternatively, the “Way of the Gun” authors use data from excise taxes to calculate the total size of the firearms market and the distance from the U.S.-Mexico border of each licensed retailer to create a demand curve for trafficked firearms. In fact, they find that distance from the border with Mexico is a consistent predictor of the number of retailers in a given U.S. county, even when controlling for a variety of domestic factors. Based on this demand curve, the authors are able to calculate the volume and value of traffic for several time periods.

They estimate that from 2010 to 2012, 252,906 firearms, worth $127 million, were purchased in the United States and illegally trafficked into Mexico. This is up from 134,045 in 1993 (the year before the federal assault weapons ban, now expired, took effect) and 87,890 in the period 1997 to 1998.

When McDougal presented these findings at the recent Peace Metrics conference in Washington, D.C., he explained that if the border with Mexico were somehow moved to its geographical limit – all the way north to the border with Canada, putting a hypothetical 1,800 mile void between U.S. gun retailers and Mexico – nearly half of the shops would be put out of business. This implies that a large part of the U.S. firearms industry relies on the increasing gun violence south of the border. And this isn’t just the case in Texas and Arizona. 12.5 percent of licensed firearms retailers operate in the southern border region. This percentage may be disproportionately high given the U.S.’s population distribution (mostly northeastern and coastal), but with 47 percent of licensed retailers relying on Mexican demand, northern vendors must be profiting from the drug war as well.

Luis Alfonso de Alba Góngora, Mexico’s current ambassador to the United Nations, is hopeful that the recently passed UN Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) will reduce the flow of weapons to Mexico. But Robert Muggah, speaking in the same CBC interview, noted that the treaty is weak on restricting civilian firearms possession as “a concession to countries such as, and in particular, the United States, who are very much at the mercy of their pro-gun lobbies.” Here, Muggah is getting at the starkly conflicting incentives faced by voters in the U.S. On the one hand, as Mexico is one of the U.S.’s largest trading partners, there may be a peace dividend available if gun violence at home and across the border were reduced by effective regulation. But on the other hand, the potential peace dividend is undefined and business people are currently profiting from the demand for weapons, making them unlikely to support greater restrictions. Given the latest Senate rejection of expanded background checks – the very policy solution recommended in Way of the Gun – and the predictions that the Senate is unlikely to ratify the ATT, it appears the U.S. is far from reconciling these opposing incentives.


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