Friday, July 8, 2016

Weekly thoughts, July 8: Gun control

In case you are interested, the view from Mexico about the gun control situation in the U.S. is, actually, not that trivially aligned with that of the wider world. I am an atypical Mexican in that I follow political and social developments in other countries closely, especially in the anglosphere. There's a common stereotype that Americans know nothing of the outside world, but I can assure you, if you're an American reader, that Mexicans are comparably ignorant about or--perhaps understandably--busy with other things besides world politics. So I can give a detailed picture about what I think, for what it's worth, but only some general remarks about Mexican society.

First, I find it scandalous that nothing has been done about the problem at all.  One would think that even the most rabid gun nut would acknowledge that something has to be done, but they actually double down and insist on "the cost of freedom" or some other platitude, and sometimes simply quote the final four words of the Second Amendment, "...shall not be infringed!", as if that were a knock-down argument for any gun control.  The trivial reply from someone like me would be, "well, then change what your stupid second amendment says!" It just seems incredible that, in the couple of decades that I've been paying attention, nothing has been done at all. Indeed, things have gotten somewhat worse since the assault weapons ban expired in the late 90's: yes, assault weapons account for only a tiny percentage of deaths, as most are due to handguns, but that's no consolation to the people in Aurora or Orlando. Yes, I understand how lobbying works and that the NRA does a lot of it; yes, I know there's a "gun culture" in the US that's different from that in some European countries with widespread gun ownership; yes, I know there are 300 million guns already out there and prohibition will create a black market and all of that; and yes, obviously some components of the problem are due to mental illness and religious terrorism; but still, the answer from Americans is we should do nothing?

From what I understand, most Americans actually do want to do something, like basic background checks before gun purchases and closing the gun-show loophole. But these things don't even get discussed at the political level because the gun nuts are very well organized in their lobbying via the NRA. I don't see Americans mobilizing en masse to do some effective lobbying of their own, as this would require a broad spectrum of warring groups in the culture war to cooperate extensively. Perhaps they could rally behind a strong presidential candidate with lots of political capital, but then that's not going to happen in this election. Over 30,000 annual deaths, plus the high-impact mass shootings we see every few months, have simply not been enough to get legislators to grow a pair and do something.

This sentiment of bewilderment at the situation is shared by most educated people in Mexico, though many laypeople who read of the latest mass shooting simply shrug it off with "Well, we all know Americans are crazy. So of course one of them would walk into an elementary school and kill 20 kids and their teachers at some point. That's just what Americans do." There is another strand of thought, if we could call it that, that seems to want to have something like the 2nd amendment here in Mexico. Gun ownership by citizens is regulated in theory, with citizens being able to own handguns up to a .38 caliber. Everything else is deemed "for exclusive use of the army." Very few Mexicans go through the hoops necessary to get legal ownership of a gun, though those hoops are purely bureaucratic and have nothing at all to do with training in the use of firearms.

In practice, Mexico is flooded with illegal guns, which come mostly from the US and are owned by the cartels. There have been cases of .50 caliber machine guns, grenades, and rocket launchers found in the hands of the narcos; they usually out-gun the police and sometimes even the army. Still, ordinary citizens tend to shy away from gun ownership, except for the small but growing group that I mentioned above: these people, usually right-leaning or anarchist, speak of "the people" taking arms and overthrowing the corrupt government, as they perceive that every other thing has been tried already and failed. There is also a strong current of vigilantism that advocates for citizens doing police work, as police in Mexico are generally regarded as worse than the criminals.

I don't think these Mexican NRA-types will have anything in the form of political success anytime soon, but I do worry about the vigilantism they inspire. There are already cases of mobs lynching suspected criminals, and there's no way that could get any better if the mobs were armed with guns instead of pitchforks. Politicians, especially at the local levels, have already been subject to attacks usually attributed to organized crime. I can't see how that would get any better if any Joe Schmo (or Juan Pérez, rather) could do the same as well. Domestic violence deaths, suicides, and accidents would obviously increase, too. I'm by no means a pacifist--I'm just squeamish about people self-righteously appointing themselves as "good guys with guns" with no one even writing their name down somewhere.

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