Op-Ed
Op-Ed

Our global guns problem

Americans love guns. And Americans hate anyone who dares to criticize their infatuation.

The first truth is rooted in America's almost unique constitutional right to bear arms — a legal and cultural paradigm that allows its citizens to own more than 300 million guns. This is roughly twice as many firearms per capita than there were in 1968, so it's a growing love affair. It's also a painful one — according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as many as 1.4 million Americans were killed or injured by guns between 2001 and 2013. The second truth is, perhaps, best proved by the outcry after British journalist Piers Morgan condemned America's gun culture. More than 100,000 people signed a petition in 2012 called “Deport British Citizen Piers Morgan for Attacking 2nd Amendment.”

But more foreigners should be speaking out about America's deadly relationship with the gun. The right to bear arms, and the sheer number of firearms bought and sold in this country every year as a result, has undeniable global implications. For a start, Americans in effect support the world's gun economy. In addition to the 8.6 million guns made in the U.S. in 2012, 4.8 million more were imported from overseas. The U.S. import volume of foreign guns more than tripled between 2003 and 2012.

More insidious, though, is how the licit American gun industry affects the illicit Latin American gun market. The ease with which guns can be purchased in the U.S., and the fact that many sales may be conducted without background checks, has deep consequences. The majority of guns found in Mexico and Central America are from the United States. It is estimated that more than 250,000 guns flow south of the border into Mexico — a country with just one official gun retailer — every year. Roughly 45% of U.S. firearms licensees are believed to rely on Mexican trade for their survival. To the north, Canada estimates that 50% of the guns used in crime in Ottawa were smuggled across the border.

In 2014, El Salvador had almost 4,000 killings, a rate of about 62 homicides per 100,000 (in the U.S. it is about 4 per 100,000). Most of these slayings were committed with guns — and about 50% of guns traced in El Salvador that year came from the United States. The lifting of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban in the U.S. in 2004 resulted in more than 2,600 estimated additional homicides in Mexico.

Even as the 2nd Amendment contributes to rising crime in nearby countries, it also validates the concept of governing with guns, both at home and abroad. The U.S. government has, in one decade — between 2006 and 2016 — spent more than $6 billion on small arms alone. That figure reflects a wider trigger-happy reality in which about 250,000 bullets were fired by U.S. troops in Iraq for every rebel killed.

Such governmental largesse has consequences. The Pentagon acknowledges that it has lost track of about 190,000 rifles and pistols given to Iraqi security forces. And 43% of the 747,000 weapons given to the Afghan National Army could not be accounted for. Without question, U.S. government-funded arms have ended up in the hands of Islamic State militants. And ammunition magazines identical to those given to Afghan government forces by the U.S. military have been found on dead Taliban fighters.

But the 2nd Amendment isn't just upholding the worldwide gun market, fueling smuggling networks and inadvertently arming terrorist groups. America's passion for guns also inhibits effective global gun control treaties.

The multilateral Arms Trade Treaty would, among other things, have prohibited the U.S. from transferring arms to states that might use them in genocide or crimes against humanity. Although the U.S. signed the treaty in 2013, Congress refused to ratify it, in large part because the National Rifle Assn. claimed that it would curtail American citizens' right to bear arms. Amnesty International insisted that wasn't true — but lawmakers listened to their favorite lobby.

The U.S. is also to blame for watering down the United Nations' 2001 Program of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons. Then-Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton ensured the program made no mention of the civilian possession of arms nor the need for laws to control them in the final document.

It is not just the United States that deserves criticism. Russian and Chinese state arms manufacturers have caused untold harm, as have private manufacturers in the European Union. But Russia and China don't pretend to be fully functioning democracies, and the EU's gun makers have limited sway politically. America, on the other hand, legitimizes and embraces political donations from gun manufacturers. (All but three of the 45 senators who torpedoed gun control measures in Congress in 2013 accepted donations from gun lobbyists.) And it fails to stem the flow of illegal guns to the drug gangs of Latin America.

America's gun control debate has now hit the political mainstream: President Obama makes a point of speaking out after mass shootings. That discourse should acknowledge that measured gun control will not just affect Americans, but could also benefit the entire world.

Iain Overton is the author of "The Way of the Gun: A Bloody Journey Into the World of Firearms."

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on February 23, 2016, in the Opinion section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Our global guns problem - Americans' right to bear arms keeps the worldwide weapons economy going." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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