From his first official day as candidate for president (“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. . . They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists”), to his first speech as president (“This American carnage stops right here and stops right now”) to last week’s State of the Union address (“For decades, open borders have allowed drugs and gangs to pour into our most vulnerable communities”), Donald Trump has been clear that a core tenet of his policy agenda is closing the borders to keep violent criminals from coming into the country.
There are many flaws in this approach. Missing from President Trump’s America First program, for instance, is a recognition that the exportation of violence actually goes in the other direction. The United States is culpable in lethal violence abroad because of our refusal to strengthen our own gun laws.
An astounding number of American guns are smuggled across the borders each year, where they are used to commit violent crimes. A new report from the Center for American Progress analyzing data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) found that, from 2014 to 2016, more than 50,000 guns originally purchased in the U.S. were recovered in criminal investigations in 15 North American, Central American and Caribbean nations.
This tsunami of guns leaving the U.S. comes as no surprise when one considers two facts about firearms in this country: There are an astronomical number of them, and our laws are full of holes that enable trafficking.
To the first point, there are roughly 300 million guns in this country. And still, the gun industry continues to churn out more of them. In 2015 alone, the most recent year this data is available, 9,358,661 new firearms were manufactured in the U.S., making it the second-highest year for gun manufacturing in three decades.
We also do much less to protect our collective arsenal than other countries. Both Canada and Mexico have enacted strict laws regulating guns that include limits on assault-style rifles and more extensive background checks and vetting. In contrast, under U.S. federal law, a person can buy a gun from a private seller without a background check. And since the expiration of the federal assault weapons ban in 2004, there are few limits to amassing a stockpile of these highly dangerous weapons, except in the seven states that have banned them.
The effect of these weapons on our neighbors is disturbing. Mexico experienced a 20-year high in murders in 2017, and 66% of these were committed with a gun. In 1997, by contrast, only 15% of Mexico’s murders involved a gun. Canada is experiencing more gun use in street crime, specifically semi-automatic rifles and handguns — a new phenomenon in that country. Our role in fueling these trends is obvious and alarming: 70% of the crime guns recovered and traced in Mexico, and 98% of crime guns in Canada originate in the U.S.
We could reduce the number of crime guns leaving the country, if only we could muster the political will to do so. Closing the private sale loophole and requiring a background check for all gun sales, not just those facilitated by a licensed gun dealer, would be a good start. These unregulated sales make it far too easy for traffickers to buy large numbers of guns without attracting the notice of law enforcement. We also need to enact a distinct federal crime for gun trafficking and straw purchasing so that prosecutors can focus on the individuals at the top of trafficking networks who are most responsible for arming both sides of the border.
In addition, we need to protect a crucial investigative tool used by ATF to gain information about potential trafficking activity — reports of multiple sales of long guns made by gun dealers in four southern border states. Every year, some in Congress try to prevent ATF from requiring these reports through a restrictive policy rider attached to ATF’s budget, including in the 2018 budget passed by the House.
Some readers may be thinking, so what? Why should we care about public safety concerns of other nations, especially those like Mexico that have deeply rooted challenges that contribute to high rates of violence unconnected to the availability of U.S. guns. This is perhaps an understandable question in this time of America First. But if we want to claim any degree of moral authority in the world, we need to take a careful look at how our inaction on gun violence redounds to the detriment of the safety and security of our international community.
Chelsea Parsons is the vice president for guns and crime policy at the Center for American Progress.