Drug Control Begets Gun Control

Jacob Sullum

4/22/2009 12:01:00 AM - Jacob Sullum

During his visit to Mexico last week, President Obama suggested that Americans are partly to blame for the appalling violence associated with the illegal drug trade there. "The demand for these drugs in the United States is what's helping keep these cartels in business," he said. "This war is being waged with guns purchased not here but in the United States."

Obama is right that the U.S. is largely responsible for the carnage in Mexico, which claimed more than 6,000 lives last year. But the problem is neither the drugs Americans buy nor the guns they sell; it's the war on drugs our government has drafted the rest of the world to fight. Instead of acknowledging the havoc caused by drug control, the Obama administration is using it as an excuse for an equally vain attempt at gun control.

"More than 90 percent of the guns recovered in Mexico come from the United States," Obama claimed last week, repeating a favorite factoid of politicians who believe American gun rights endanger our southern neighbor's security. The claim has been parroted by many news organizations, including ABC, which used it in a 2008 story that suggested the sort of policy changes the number is meant to encourage. The story, which asked if "the Second Amendment [is] to blame" for "arming Mexican drug gangs," quoted a federal official who said, "It's virtually impossible to buy a firearm in Mexico as a private citizen, so this country is where they come."

But as Fox News and Factcheck.org have shown, the percentage cited by the president greatly exaggerates the share of guns used by Mexican criminals that were bought in the United States. Fox estimates it's less than a fifth, while Factcheck.org says it may be more like a third.

If the guns used by Mexican drug traffickers do not mainly come from gun dealers in the U.S., where do they come from? Many of the weapons are stolen from the Mexican military and police, often by deserters; some are smuggled over the border from Guatemala; others come from China by way of Africa or Latin America. Russian gun traffickers do a booming business in Mexico.

Given these alternatives, making it harder for Americans to buy guns, in the hope of preventing straw buyers from supplying weapons to smugglers, is not likely to stop Mexican gangsters from arming themselves. The persistence of the drug traffickers' main business, which consists of transporting and selling products that are entirely illegal on both sides of the border, should give pause to those who think they can block the flow of guns to the cartels.

The futile effort to stop Americans from consuming politically incorrect intoxicants is the real source of the violence in Mexico, since prohibition creates a market with artificially high prices and hands it over to criminals. "Because of the enormous profit potential," two senior federal law enforcement officials told the Senate Judiciary Committee last month, "violence has always been associated with the Mexican drug trade as criminal syndicates seek to control this lucrative endeavor."

The more the government cracks down on the black market it created, the more violence it fosters, since intensified enforcement provokes confrontations with the police and encourages fighting between rival gangs over market opportunities created by arrests or deaths. "If the drug effort were failing," an unnamed "senior U.S. official" told The Wall Street Journal in February, "there would be no violence."

Perhaps it is time to redefine failure. Three former Latin American presidents, including Mexico's Ernesto Zedillo, recently noted that "we are farther than ever from the announced goal of eradicating drugs." The attempt to achieve that impossible dream, they observed, has led to "a rise in organized crime," "the corruption of public servants," "the criminalization of politics and the politicization of crime," and "a growth in unacceptable levels of drug-related violence."

Instead of importing Mexico's prohibitionist approach to guns, we should stop exporting our prohibitionist approach to drugs.