Fighting Insurrection in Mexico, Fostering it at Home
In towns along the United States-Mexico border, a battle is raging between drug cartels and the Mexican government that has left thousands of innocent civilians and Mexican police officials dead. A galvanizing moment occurred on May 8, when assassins shot and killed Edgar Gomez, Mexico's top cop and an anti-cartel crusader, as he exited his home north of Mexico City. Gomez is just one of 6,000 Mexican government officials and police officers that have been killed by drug-related violence in the last two and a half years alone.
This epidemic of violence has become a major news story in the United States because of the source of so many of the guns being used in these attacks. Mexico's deputy attorney general, recently stated that 97% of the firearms used by Mexican drug gangs originate in the United States--primarily coming from the states of California, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico.
Mexico itself has strict prohibitions on purchasing firearms, but in the United States guns are easily acquired in an open market environment. U.S. gun shops and gun shows in border states are frequent shopping spots for agents of the drug cartels, who often bring narcotics to America and return to Mexico with firearms. Their guns of choice are extremely lethal: assault rifles (fully legal in the U.S. since the expiration of the federal ban in 2004), .50 caliber sniper rifles (capable of puncturing armor from long distances) and high-velocity handguns like the FN Herstal-57 (known south of the border as the "mata policia" or "cop killer").
The U.S. government's response to this cross-border trafficking of firearms has been quick and dramatic. The ATF has initiated "Project Gunrunner" with the aim of "deploying its resources strategically on the Southwest Border to deny firearms...to criminal organizations in Mexico and along the border, and to combat firearms-related violence affecting communities on both sides of the border." A bipartisan Congressional effort has also authored the Merida Initiative, which would provide Mexico with up to $1.4 billion worth of aid to fight the drug cartels. This legislation, which has passed both chambers of Congress and awaits President Bush's signature, also provides $15 million in new funding to Project Gunrunner. The ATF plans to use the funding to create seven additional Project Gunrunner teams.
So why are the Bush administration and so many traditional Congressional allies of the gun lobby supporting an anti-trafficking initiative that would benefit Mexico when they have been so reluctant to address America's own internal gun-running problem?
The answer is that the problem is quickly becoming a national security issue. Mexico City sociologist Luis Astorga recently told the Washington Post that the violence in Mexico "could have a snowball effect, even leading to the risk of ungovernability. It indicates terrible things, a level of weakness in our institutions--they can't even protect themselves." The cartel wars now pose a threat not only to Mexico's democracy and sovereignty, but to America's security as well should the government of Mexican President Felipe Calderón collapse.
Here in America we often hear the gun lobby spout off about how freedom is best preserved by unfettered access to firearms, but the current situation in Mexico demonstrates that reality can sometimes get in the way of public relations slogans. The obvious question is why don't we adopt Project Gunrunner here at home to help our own crime-ravaged communities? Doesn't Atlanta, for example, deserve the same protections as Mexico City? Unfortunately, it appears the lessons from the Mexican experience are, at the National Rifle Association's encouragement, best left at the border. In fact, in many ways we are moving in the opposite direction in addressing gun trafficking inside the U.S. Congress' repeated embrace of the restrictive Tiahrt Amendments would be one obvious example.
Additionally, the Bush administration and a majority of Members of Congress recently endorsed an "insurrectionist" reading of the Second Amendment in separate amicus briefs in the landmark Supreme Court case of District of Columbia v. Heller.* The Court is reviewing a decision by a panel of the D.C. Court of Appeals which held--without precedent--that the Second Amendment, among other things, protects an individual right to possess arms to defend against the "depredations of a tyrannical government." Practically, this would mean that individuals would have the constitutional right to arm themselves and violently overthrow our government once they decided it had become oppressive (not unlike the unilateral action that Timothy McVeigh took in bombing the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995).
This insurrectionist argument has been pushed for years by right-wing militia and gun rights groups which seek to keep gun ownership anonymous and unregulated by government. Unfortunately, however, we are not immune from the instability that currently plagues Mexico. Rates of gun crime are again on the rise in the United States. The amount of sophisticated firepower in private hands has drastically increased during the last eight years, especially with the demise of the assault weapons ban. The same dangerous weapons now flowing into Mexico are currently available at guns shows across America, and the gun lobby's arguments in the Heller case make it clear that many right-wing gun owners are buying these firearms with our own government in mind. Sadly, recent shootings like the one in Kirkwood, Missouri reveal that anti-government sentiment continues to fuel violence in our country.
For the sake of our democracy, the Supreme Court should reject the insurrectionist premise and commit to the position that it is never constitutional, legal, or ethical for individuals to employ violence against democratic officials or institutions. Ditto for America's elected officials. While appeasing the gun lobby might be good politics for some Members of Congress, systematically breaking down America's gun regulations could one day threaten their own well-being and create an anarchic void that not even a domestic Project Gunrunner could redress.
* The amicus curiae brief from the Bush administration Department of Justice in the Heller case asserted that the Second Amendment guarantees "an armed citizenry as a deterrent to abusive behavior by the federal government itself." The brief from Members of Congress (and Vice President Dick Cheney in his role as President of the Senate) stated, "In sum, the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to keep and bear arms ... This Court should affirm the judgment of the court of appeals."
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