12/19/2012 07:18 pm ET Updated Feb 18, 2013

The Newtown-Mexico Connection

It is shocking how the debate over gun control in the wake of the Newtown massacre has avoided mentioning gun violence south of the border. The 20 children gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School can now be added to the excruciating list of at least 1,200 North American children who have been violently killed since the beginning of the U.S.-backed militarized "drug war" in 2006. Some estimates even put the number at over 4,000, along with over 3,700 orphans.

The grief of the families of Fairfield Country unites them with the bitter pain felt by the tens of thousands of family members of those who have died in Mexico. The overarching objective of the policy debate should not be only to avoid occasional disasters in high income US suburbs like Newtown, but to bring peace to North America.

Guns cause a great deal of damage in the United States, but these very same weapons have literally ripped apart the country's southern neighbor. Since 2006, over 70,000 people have been violently killed, 25,000 have simply "disappeared" and at least 230,000 have been displaced from their homes in Mexico. One in three Mexican households were victims of crime or violence in 2011. Homicide is the second highest cause of death today in Mexico. Recent data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives reveal that the vast majority of the guns used in Mexico are purchased in the United States.

Many brush off these numbers as supposedly the result of fighting between rival drug gangs. But the reality is that an enormous portion of the dead are perfectly innocent bystanders, migrants, activists, journalists and children. One of the most important characteristics of the semi-automatic assault weapons purchased at US gun fairs and shops is that they are well prepared to take out anyone in sight. No wonder :atinos, 65 percent of whom are of Mexican origin, are so strongly in favor of increased gun control in the United States.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) should be applauded for its willingness to "offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again". But the discussion should be guided just as much by the plight of Mexican children as by the fears of suburban mothers. It is not enough, for instance, to improve background checks for mental health conditions, reduce video-game violence, include safety controls on firing mechanisms or reduce the size of ammunition magazines.

While such reforms may reduce the possibility of another mass shooting in Fairfield County, they would do little to reduce the death toll in Ciudad Juárez, just across the border from El Paso and one of the most violent cities in the world. Indeed, such cosmetic changes could even make the situation worse south of the border if U.S. gun manufacturers and sellers respond to the new bureaucratic limits by offloading their excess stock on Mexican arms traffickers.

It is time for the U.S. to realize that it is in its own interest to transform the way it values the lives and institutions of its Mexican neighbors. For instance, last week the Obama administration gave a slap in the face to the Mexican people by dropping criminal charges against HSBC for its extensive money laundering scheme involving drug traffickers from Mexico. US prosecutors argued that they refused to prosecute in order to avoid the "collateral consequences" bringing down HSBC would have for the global economy.

In making this decision, the United States Justice Department apparently did not take into account the much more important "collateral consequences" which this message of impunity will have on the Mexican people. The body count will inevitably rise as banks will be able to continue to help drug cartels transfer money freely to purchase assault weapons in the United States without risk of criminal prosecution. But the Obama administration decided to give more importance to the financial position of a powerful international bank than to the lives of innocent Mexican children.

This Tuesday's New York Times exposé of Walmart's corrupt behavior south of the border also reveals a worrisome lack of respect for the Mexican people. David Barstow's investigation revealed that Walmart is by no means "the reluctant victim of a corrupt culture" but "an aggressive and creative corrupter" that actively "used bribes to subvert democratic governance." The corporation used dozens of payoffs in order to be able to illegally construct a new store on a protected archeological site next to the famous Teotihuacan pyramids. And once the deals were discovered company executives failed to inform the Mexican authorities of the wrongdoing. Once again, the interests of a powerful transnational corporation were given priority over the rule of law, and the welfare of the Mexican people suffered as a consequence.

The debate over gun control is a golden opportunity to stop treating Mexico as the US "backyard" where corruption, dirty money and assault weapons can be dumped at will. Instead of handing over the issue to the NRA and covering over the problem with bandaid measures, President Barack Obama and the Democrats in Congress should move to impose an across the board prohibition on the sale of all semi-automatic and assault weapons. Mexican law already includes such a prohibition and the United States has no reason to fall behind on this issue.

President Obama's recent statements are encouraging. He has explicitly called for the reinstatement of the Clinton-era assault weapons ban, whose expiration in 2004 is responsible for much of the carnage south of the border. Obama also explicitly mentioned closing the gun show "loophole," which has been one of the easiest ways for Mexican drug traffickers to gain access to high powered weapons. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether Obama and the Democrats will be able to stand up to the intense pressure which will be exerted by the NRA.

It is time to defuse the time bomb. Only a truly comprehensive reform will help avoid the long term spillover of violence from Mexico to the U.S. Such a reform strategy would also have a positive collateral effect by reducing gun deaths in urban America and among minorities in general. But if the United States decides to continue to ignore and aggravate the plight of its southern neighbor through limited reform, soon there may not be anywhere left to hide from the bullets and violence the U.S. itself has created.