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Mired in violence, gun-strict Mexico points to U.S.

A shopper in Mexico City looks at firearms in Mexico's only gun store, which is run by the military.

A shopper in Mexico City looks at firearms in Mexico's only gun store, which is run by the military.

MEXICO CITY – There is one gun store in Mexico. And it serves a very select clientele.

The store is run by the Mexican army and occupies two rooms in a heavily guarded building near the army’s headquarters in Mexico City.

To shop here, customers need a permit that can take months to get. And once they buy a gun, there are limits on how much ammunition they can buy each month, where they can take the gun, who they can sell it to.

To shoppers here, the irony is clear: Mexico has some of the toughest gun-control laws in the world, yet the country’s drug cartels are armed to the teeth with high-powered illegal weapons because guns are so easy to buy in the United States and smuggle over the border.

“If the United States had a system like ours, we wouldn’t have so many problems here in Mexico,” Agustin Villordo, 27, of Puebla, Mexico, said Tuesday as he shopped for a hunting rifle.

On Thursday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano will visit Mexico to discuss ways to stop gun smuggling. The meeting is part of an effort by the United States to help Mexico in an increasingly bloody war against the drug cartels. More than 6,300 people have died in the violence since 2006.

But Mexicans say little will change as long as the United States continues to make it easy to buy guns.

“It is necessary to reduce the sale of weapons, particularly of high-power weapons, in the United States,” President Felipe Calderón said during a visit to Britain on Monday.

He said there was a “correlation” between Mexico’s soaring drug violence and the end of the U.S. ban on sales of assault-style weapons. That ban, which expired in 2004, barred sales of semi-automatic rifles with certain combinations of military-style features, such as folding stocks, large magazines or flash suppressors.

A strict system

Mexico’s 1917 Constitution gave citizens the right to bear arms “except those expressly prohibited by law.”

But the Mexican government has clamped down on gun owners in recent decades.

After students looted Mexico City gun stores during uprisings in the 1960s, the Mexican congress amended the constitution. The changes gave federal authorities the power to set “the circumstances, conditions, requirements and places” in which citizens could have guns. In 1995, the government abolished the last private gun stores and gave the National Defense Secretariat, which oversees the army and air force, a monopoly on gun sales.

The military’s gun store, known as the Directorate of Arms and Munitions Sales, has averaged about 7,780 civilian gun sales a year since 2006, said Lt. Col. Raul Manzano Velez, director of the military’s civilian gun sales.

All privately owned guns have to be registered with the Mexican military. To be able to take their guns outside their homes, owners need a transportation permit that must be renewed annually.

Even minor offenses are punishable by years in jail.

On Tuesday at the gun store, a few shoppers wandered among wooden cases filled with weapons imported by the army from all over the world. Buyers waited as soldiers fetched their purchases from a storeroom.

The heaviest stuff – assault rifles, flash-bang grenades and bulletproof vests – was in a separate room marked “For police forces only.”

Under Mexican law, the military is the only source for such supplies.

The officers who run this system acknowledge that they face an uphill battle in their efforts to control Mexico’s guns.

“I would dare say that Mexico has some of the strictest regulations about gun ownership in all the world, and we’re right next to a country . . . that has some of the easiest ones,” Manzano said. “That creates a huge vacuum between the countries and feeds weapons trafficking.”

U.S. responds

President Obama has promised a crackdown on guns from the U.S., which account for 90 percent of the weapons confiscated in Mexico.

Last week, the Department of Homeland Security announced it would send dogs, X-ray machines and 100 more agents to the border to search southbound cars and trains for guns and cash headed to Mexico.

“This is a two-way street,” Obama said during CBS’ “Face the Nation” news program Sunday. “We’ve got to do our part in reducing the flow of cash and guns south.”

But gun-control advocates say the United States needs to restrict sales, not just smuggling.

“You’ve got guys driving around with high-powered firearms in their cars; you’re putting law enforcers at greater risk,” said Ladd Everett, a spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. “Why not stop those guns from ever being bought in the first place?”

Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she would like to see the U.S. government reinstate the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban, though she added that such a move would face fierce opposition in Congress.

U.S. gun-ownership groups say they doubt harsher rules would stem Mexico’s violence.

“Mexico has very strict gun laws, which clearly have done nothing to prevent criminals and drug cartels from obtaining firearms, and it’s left many of the honest residents of Mexico defenseless,” said Chris Cox, chief lobbyist for the National Rifle Association.

“I don’t think anybody could argue that Mexico’s gun-control laws have been an effective crime-fighting tool.”



In most U.S. states, citizens can buy as many guns as they want after filling out a form and submitting to a five-minute check of their criminal history against a federal database of police records. Sales between individual owners often require no background checks or paperwork at all.

In Mexico, the rules on civilian gun sales are much stricter:

• Owners must get a permit from the Mexican army. They must show they need a gun and demonstrate that they make “an honest living.” The simplest permits take about eight days to process.

• Permission to carry a weapon requires a medical and psychological exam, as well as an exhaustive background check. Processing time is four to eight months, and the permit must be renewed annually.

• Guns can be bought at only one place: the National Defense Secretariat in Mexico City. Customers can own a total of 10 guns but only two handguns.

• Guns are registered by the military. Handguns sold under a “home defense” permit must not leave the owner’s home. If the owner moves, he or she must update the gun registry. If the gun is sold, the sale must be approved by the military and the gun must change hands at the army headquarters in Mexico City.

• Gun owners can buy ammunition only for guns that they own. They are limited to a certain amount of cartridges: 200 rounds every six months for a high-powered weapon, 500 rounds a month for a .22-caliber pistol.

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