01/24/2013 06:20 pm ET Updated Mar 26, 2013

Can Obama's Gun Control Plan Reduce Violence in Mexico?


President Obama's moving speech to unveil his gun control plan opens up the possibility of devising -- finally -- more sane and healthy policies on limiting the destructive capacity of dangerous individuals. That's good news for U.S. communities.

Another consequence of fixing gun laws has hardly been mentioned though -- the impact it would have south of the border.

The package of 23 executive actions and three requests for Congressional action announced in the January 16 speech, streamed live and amply reported in the press, aim at stemming gun violence in the U.S. and could have major repercussions in Mexico, where cartel-related violence has claimed more than 100,000 lives in the past six years.

In some ways, the speech and the actions announced by Obama went beyond what many people expected. The bold call to reinstate the assault weapons ban -- a decision that falls on Congress -- shows a second-term president ready to speak his mind following a rash of massacres across the country.

Obama attempted to ground the new proposals in surveys showing broad public support for more gun control, portraying the powerful gun lobbies as not representative of majority views. He stressed the human costs of gun violence by describing details of the victims lives, especially the children of Sandy Hook, and appealing to a universal concern for children's safety.

In his speech at the White House, President Obama detailed three measures required of Congress and mentioned a few of his executive measures.

The three specific requests of Congress are:

  1. Legislation to require a universal background check on all gun buyers. Obama noted that existing background checks have kept some 1.5 million guns from ending up in the hands of potentially irresponsible buyers. He noted that one survey found that 70 percent of NRA members favor universal background checks.
  2. Restore the ban on military-style assault weapons and instate a 10-round limit for ammunition magazines. Obama stated that the shooter in the July 20, 2012 massacre in an Aurora, Colo. movie theater used an assault weapon with a high-capacity magazine that enabled him to shoot 70 people, killing 12, in minutes. "Weapons designed for the theater of war have no place in a movie theater," he said.
  3. "Help, rather than hinder law enforcement," by getting tough on people who buy guns to sell to criminals. He did not refer to specific legislative changes here, but instead to the need to confirm the director of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Bureau (ATF), the agency charged with overseeing arms sales and preventing smuggling. Obama has nominated acting director Todd Jones.

As for the executive measures, the president called for the development of emergency preparedness plans, and reforms to give mental health professionals options to report threats of violence, while adding that mental health patients are more frequently the victims rather than the perpetrators of violence.

He also said he will direct the Center for Disease Control to conduct research into the causes of violence in U.S. society. Noting that there has been opposition to this type of research and commenting acidly that "no one benefits from ignorance," Obama called for studies that scientifically measure the impact of violent videos and other imagery on young minds.

The full list of the 23 actions signed by the president -- not all of which were included in the speech -- can be found here.

With the plan on the table, the battle begins. The National Rifle Association immediately promised "the fight of the century." Obama called on the U.S. public to support the measures and begin pressure on Congressional representatives, emphasizing districts heavily influenced by gun lobbyists and organizations.

Will the New Plan Help Reduce Mexico's Violence?

In many countries with far stricter gun laws, the NRA's argument that owning assault weapons is a fundamental liberty is almost inconceivable. In Mexico, the big question is: Can the new plan reduce the flow of arms south?

Mexico has long had a stake in gun control in the United States. Mexicans have demanded the U.S. act to control the flow of arms, because loose laws not only contribute to the mass shootings in the United States, but also fuel drug war violence in Mexico when smugglers take high-power weapons over the border.

The vast majority of guns confiscated in drug war crimes can be traced back to the U.S. From former president Calderon, who called for reinstatement of the assault weapon ban and an end to gun smuggling on the floor of the U.S. Congress in May of 2011, to Mexico's Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity that traveled throughout the United States last summer calling for stricter control on arms sales and trafficking.

Specifically Mexico's peace movement called for:

The president of the United States to immediately prohibit the importation of assault weapons to the United States. Assault weapons are often smuggled into Mexico, and have also been used too many times against innocent civilians in the U.S. We also propose increasing the regulatory capacity of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) in the border regions where the arms smuggling is concentrated, especially in border states like Arizona and Texas.

President Obama did not mention the effect of out-of-control weapons sales in the United States on its southern neighbor.

It's understandable that with a major domestic battle looming, bringing Mexico into the mix might not be strategic. Racism and xenophobia against anything Mexican among some parts of the press and population means that mentioning Mexico in almost any context can cause polemics. Just take a look at the number of irate statements from Fox News and other right-wing outlets whenever Calderon called for reforming U.S. gun laws to control smuggling.

A close look at the reforms shows that the first six points relate to background checks. Congress has to legislate to require universal background checks, so these measures attempt to fill gaps within the existing structure, with greater information sharing and rigorous enforcement and definition.

Actions 7-8, 15 and 18 relate to public education and gun safety measures, and the development of the emergency response model.

Actions 9-11 and 14 announce additional efforts by federal law enforcement agencies to generate and share information on gun violence from the causes (CDC) to the source of guns. These include nominating the ATF director, which the president did with Jones and must be confirmed.

Actions 12-13 regard stronger, more effective law enforcement. Some press articles have interpreted #12 as placing cops in schools -- a terrible idea -- but that has not so far been stated explicitly in the list or the public event. Action 18 does refer to hiring "school resource officers" -- whatever that means.

The rest of the actions comprise measures to prevent and spot threats in mental health services.

What does this mean for Mexico?

* Increased background checks can effectively reduce smuggling. There is no question that greater vigilance over who is allowed to purchase guns, as Obama stated both from licensed dealers and gun-show sellers, will make it more difficult for straw purchasers to buy for smugglers. These measures must be fully and actively supported.

* The most impact by far would be the ban on sale and possession of assault weapons. Cutting off the free circulation of these weapons in the United States would help dry up U.S. supply for smugglers. This measure will be vigorously opposed by gun proponents.

None of the demands put forward by a group of U.S. and Mexican non-governmental organizations made it into the presidential actions. A petition signed by more than 12,000 people called to:

Immediately detain and prohibit the importation of assault weapons to the United States, because many of them are sent as contraband to Mexico.

Order dealers to report to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) the sale of multiple assault rifles to the same person over a period of five days.

Increase the regulatory capacity of the ATF in those regions of the United States that supply the weapons contraband to Mexico, especially in border states.

The petition actually fell short of what Obama did in calling for Congress to restore the ban. Now, with Obama's backing, Congress could and should include the import ban in the restoration of the assault weapon ban.

As to the demand for increased functions for the ATF, giving the agency more powers must be predicated on a thorough review and clean-up within. It makes sense politically at this point to first consolidate the agency and its leadership and then take on issues of giving it greater powers, since it has become a lightening rod for right-wing criticism based on the Fast and Furious scandal.

After the ATF has a confirmed director, it should immediately begin an overhaul of rules and practices, including more reporting and regulation. This is particularly needed following the famously failed and illegal operation "Fast and Furious," which allowed guns to be smuggled to Mexican cartels.

The Right to Live Without Violence

The president knows what he's up against now. He laid it out in the speech (a speech worth listening to, by the way): "Ask (your representatives) to do this and if they say no, ask them why not..." and added pointedly, "What's more important? Getting an A grade from the gun lobby that helps fund their campaigns or giving parents some peace of mind when they drop their child off for first grade?"

The National Rifle Association's influence in Congress remains strong and extends into international policy as well. The NRA issued an ad calling Obama a "hypocrite" for accepting armed guards for his daughters, implying that the best way to keep children safe is to arm them (or adults around them). This fight won't be pretty.

Obama tried to preempt the criticisms by warning viewers that opponents would attack his plan on the grounds of violations of civil liberties. He reiterated his support for the Second Amendment.

Just before signing the actions, Obama noted that mass shootings enabled in part by a lack of regulation, are not only a tragedy but a violation of basic human rights. The right to assemble peacefully (for those shot in the theaters), the right to freedom of worship (for the Sikhs in Wisconsin) and basic rights to life and happiness are violated by violence.

A rights framework that recognizes and moves beyond the human tragedy, is a good model for understanding violence in both the U.S. and Mexico, because it lends a greater sense of urgency to the issue. The right to live without violence places responsibility for ending the killings squarely within the realm of the government.

Mexico prohibits most gun ownership, but as always enforcement is the problem. If fewer guns come over the border, the nation could have a small, but important, aid in reducing the bloodshed that has become a hallmark of daily life since the drug war began.

In the United States, citizens are mobilizing to support the measures. The politics have shifted, especially since among the rising demographic group of latinos only 29 percent think "gun owndership rights" are more important than gun control.

Obama's plan comes as welcome news in Mexico. It's a step forward, despite the fact that the black market for arms is international and "legitimate" arms in the hands of authorities are just as deadly when turned against the population as arms in the hands of criminals.

But especially in Mexico where violence is caused by organized crime and its accomplices, the dynamics of violence are far more causal than the tools. These killers will always find a way to kill. The U.S. government's support for Mexico's disastrous drug war embodied in the Merida Initiative foreign aid package feeds the dynamics of violence in Mexican border cities and throughout the country.

Obama's arms control plan could reduce gun smuggling over the border. But until the logic of militarization and defense through fire power -- whether on the personal or national level -- is replaced with real attempts at preventing and resolving conflict, violence will continue to claim lives on both sides of the border.