The refugee crisis currently taking place on America’s southern border is mainly the result of violence in Central America. There is little disagreement on that. But what is not being talked about in the mainstream media is the role that U.S. gun policy played in the creation of this crisis.
In a piece for New Republic, Alec MacGillis lays out the connection between what he calls America’s “wild west” gun laws and the wave of refugees currently flooding the U.S. He mentions that the role of gun trafficking from the U.S. has largely been missing from the discussion of gang violence in Central America, despite the fact that there has been reporting about how some of the gangs terrorizing the so-called “Northern Triangle” (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras) got their start in the United States. MacGillis observes:
Getting less attention, though, has been the U.S. link to the actual weaponry being used in the killings and other crimes that make the three Central American nations among the most dangerous in the world. …According to data collected by the ATF, nearly half of the guns seized from criminals in El Salvador and submitted for tracing in the ATF’s online system last year originated in the U.S., versus 38 and 24 percent in Honduras and Guatemala, respectively. Many of those guns were imported through legal channels, either to government or law enforcement agencies in the three countries or to firearms dealers there. But a not-insignificant number of the U.S.-sourced guns—more than 20 percent in both Guatemala and Honduras—were traced to retail sales in the U.S.
MacGillis describes how the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) has been stymied in its attempts to staunch the flow of guns to the Northern Triangle thanks to the same force that prevents more sensible gun laws in the U.S.: the gun lobby. He says that once gun traffickers discovered that bulk handgun purchases were being reported to ATF, they switched to purchasing rifles, which dealers are not required to report.
In 2011, the Justice Department applied the multiple handgun purchase reporting rule to certain types of semi-automatic rifles, but only in four border states: California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. ATF says this rule has allowed them to get information about possible gun trafficking much earlier than they used to be able to. Would it surprise anyone to learn that the rule has been challenged in court (unsuccessfully so far) by the NRA and the National Shooting Sports Foundation?
Of course, this rule is emblematic of the problem with gun laws in the U.S. Since it only applies to four states, traffickers can simply move their purchases to another state. ATF official Kevin O’Keefe tells MacGillis that within months, big purchases died off in the four states affected by the rule. But ATF has no good way of knowing whether the purchasers started buying their guns elsewhere.
ATF is also hampered by the lack of any meaningful federal gun trafficking law. Colby Goodman, who wrote a 2013 paper on U.S. gun trafficking to Central America, says that because the average sentence received by a straw purchaser is only six months, it is difficult to get them to provide information on who the purchase was for.
So the movement of refugee children northward is, in large part, thanks to the movement of American weapons southward, into countries with corrupt and/or failed governments. MacGillis concludes:
For every one of those traffickers caught sending firearms to the Northern Triangle, countless others succeeded in doing so, bringing even more firepower to a combustible, crime-ridden region. It’s something to keep in mind as we watch the crowds of women and children besieging our border. When it comes to unwanted traffic between the U.S. and Central America, it’s very much a two-way street.
Once again, the American gun lobby is caught with blood on its hands. And many of the same people who are standing at the border, screaming that these refugee children should be sent home, also support the gun policies that helped cause the crisis.