Published January 16, 2013
As President Obama announced 23 executive actions pertaining to gun ownership in the U.S., violent crime levels in some Latin American countries are at almost epidemic levels despite strict gun control laws in places like Mexico and Venezuela.
The Venezuelan capital of Caracas saw over 3,400 murders last year and a Mexican research group, the Citizen's Council for Public Security and Justice, ranked five of its country’s cities among the top 10 most violent in the world.
“Prohibition, by and large, doesn’t work. Or when it does work, only law-abiding citizens obey the law,” said professor Bob Cottrol of George Washington University Law School. “When guns are outlawed, only outlaws have guns.”
Despite the Mexican constitutional right to own a firearm, it is one of the toughest countries in the hemisphere to own a gun… at least legally. This, however, has not stopped the country’s drug cartels from amassing large caches of firearms and other deadly devices.
There is only one gun store in the country, located in Mexico City. After the civil unrest of the 1960s, Mexican made reforms to the Constitution and put limits on gun ownership and restricted the right to carry a firearm to law enforcement and federal officials.
Other requirements on gun ownership are similar to those in the United States, such as an age limit to ownership –18 in Mexico, 21 in the U.S –, no prior criminal convictions and the mental capacity to operate a gun. Mexico, however, requires gun owners to obtain a one-year permit from the Secretariat of National Defense and also belong to a shooting club.
“The fact that everyone is required to re-register their gun every year already creates a bureaucratic barrier in itself to owning a weapon,” said Carin Zissis, the editor-in-chief of the Americas Society/Council of the Americas online.
Even with these restrictions, a large number of Mexicans own firearms. An estimated 15.5 million Mexicans have guns, but only 2.8 million of those guns are registered, according to GunPolicy.org.
One theory about the proliferation of unregistered firearms in Mexico is that the country permits the private sale of firearms. Most experts, however, attribute these disparate figures to arms smuggling across the U.S.-Mexico border.
With over 50,000 gun retailers located on the U.S. side of the border, there have been multiple reports of weapons purchased by U.S. buyers ending up in the hands of Mexican drug cartel members. Two out of every three illegal firearms found in Mexico come from the United States, according to statistics released by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
“The difference between Mexico and the rest of Latin America is its location,” Zissis said. “Bordering a country that has lax laws on guns will help create this problem.”
Other countries, such as Colombia and Brazil, also have strict gun laws, and yet are plagued as well by high violent crimes.
In Venezuela, with the state of President Hugo Chávez’s health in limbo, crime rate has taken to the back burner. Caracas, however, experienced a record number of homicides last year and Venezuela ranks 27th in the world rankings of privately held firearms, according to GunPolicy.org.
“When it comes to ownership of a weapon, Venezuela stands out: 10 percent of the population is estimated to own a firearm,” said Elizabeth Dickinson in an article for the United Nations. “Here, criminal activity may be more to blame than drugs.”
Under Chávez, the country has been cracking down on gun sales, with his 2011 disarmament commission that saw 13,000 illegal weapons surrendered and the 2012 resolution that banned the sale of all firearms and ammunition to civilians for one year.
The country’s legislature is now considering a new disarmament bill that would raise the minimum age to purchase a gun to 25 and order marking on guns and ammunition to make tracking easier. The bill, however, is stalled as the country deals with other matters.
Some gun control experts warn that stricter laws don’t mean a re-education in violence and that high rates of violent stem from socioeconomic problems such as poverty and official corruption.
As example, Cottrol pointed to Jamaica, which in the 1970s passed strict gun legislation in the hopes of curbing violence — to no avail. Much of the violence in Kingston and other cities has been attributed to criminal groups running the country’s lucrative drug trade.
“If you can’t stop outlaws from getting guns on a small island," Cottrol asked, "how are you going to stop them on a continent with multiple borders and ports of entry?”