A Tale of Two Cities

Last Friday our country was stunned to learn of a senseless shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, which left 14 people dead and over 50 wounded.  This inexplicable act of evil has left many in our country calling for solutions to prevent any other such events from occurring. For many on the left, the tragedy has given life to resounding calls for more gun control.  New York City Mayor Bloomberg called on both President Obama and Mitt Romney to take a stance in favor of new gun control laws.  In Congress, liberals have been calling for bans on assault rifles and limitations on ammunition. 

Yesterday, Obama stated his position on increased gun control. While he affirms that he, "like most Americans" believes that the second Amendment guarantees citizens the right to bear arms, he also believes that we need stricter laws to prevent criminals from purchasing weapons and ammunition.  Specifically, he is calling on lawmakers to work to prevent "mentally unstable" people from purchasing weapons. (I would like to know who determines whether a given person is 'mentally unstable' considering some of the definitions of potential terrorists that we have seen from Homeland Security over the past few years.)

The timing of this new push for gun control is interesting in light of the new UN Small Arms Treaty that is being completed this week.  The UN Small Arms Treaty is an international attempt at gun control, both on a military and individual level, which has been endorsed by both Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  Volumes could be written on the various provisions of this treaty--including the wisdom of allowing an enemy nation such as Iran whose leader believes that he has a mission from his god to establish a Muslim Caliphate (government) which will spread across the world to be allowed to dictate the number of weapons each country can have. Today, though, I want to focus on just one aspect of gun control--it's ineffectiveness in preventing violence.

As a life-long resident of the El Paso, Texas, region I have gotten to witness up close and personal the difference between a society which limited gun control (Texas) and a society with restrictive gun control (Mexico) and to see the differences between the two.

Many who live off the border wrongly assume that Mexico's problems with violence are the product of the drug war between warring cartels.  That is the current source of the murder and mayhem in Mexico, but Juarez has been a dangerous, violent city for many years--long before outgoing Mexican President Felipe Calderon began the war that has torn the country apart.  Several years ago, before the drug wars began, I did a mortgage loan for a woman living in the U.S. whose family owned a money-changing business in Juarez.  She and her brothers had inherited the business, but she told me that her brothers did not want to work in it because it was too dangerous.  The business had been robbed a number of times, and during one of these robberies her husband had been shot.  Fearing that he would be killed if he continued to work in the business, she had encouraged him to go to work in a restaurant in El Paso. She, herself, continued to cross the bridge every day to open and operate her business, and she hoped and prayed each day that she would not be killed while doing so.

My client was unable to buy a gun to protect herself and her business because of the strict gun control laws in Mexico.  These laws, which are among the strictest in the world, are designed to make gun ownership nearly impossible.  According to an article in the Washington Post, the entire nation of Mexico has only one gun store, which is located in Mexico city and operated by the Mexican military.  The clerks are soldiers.  The store is located on a secure military base and to enter customers must provide valid ID, pass through a metal detector, give up their cell phones and cameras, provide proof of income, submit references, pass a criminal background check and provide proof that they have been honorably discharged from any military service.  If they pass all of these checks, they are allowed to purchase just ONE small caliber weapon and a box of bullets.  The weapons are allowed only at home. A business owner who wants to possess a weapon must apply for a separate permit.  Business owners are normally encouraged to hire a private security company to protect themselves rather than getting a gun.

Mexico's no tolerance laws about gun control frequently cause problems for U.S. citizens who cross the border with weapons.  Several years ago, a member of our police force drove his vehicle across the border in pursuit of a suspect. Upon crossing to the Mexican side, he was immediately detained by Mexican authorities and jailed. (He remained in custody for months while U.S. officials negotiated his release.) Most recently, a young truck driver from Dallas, Texas, who was transporting a shipment of ammunition, crossed the border and was jailed in Mexico.  Although the Mexican customs official who detained him said in her statement that he told her he had crossed accidentally and was trying to turn around before entering Mexico, and in spite of calls from various civic leaders for his release, he remains incarcerated for illegally bringing guns into Mexico.

So how has all of this gun control worked out for Mexico?  Since 2008, over 51,000 people have been murdered in Mexico in the nation's drug war. (To put this figure into perspective, only about 58,000 Americans died during the entire Vietnam War).  In 2010, over 3100 people died in the city of Juarez, Mexico, earning the city the title of the "murder capital of the world."  In 2011 the number of murders in Juarez dropped to 1904.  In 2012,  murders are declining, but there is still incredible violence in the city. Year to date, 60 women have been murdered in a story that is being largely obscured by the larger story of the wars over drug territory; a total of about 100 women have been reported missing over the past two years.  More women have been killed in Juarez in 2012 than in any of the earlier years of "femicide."

Our whole nation is mourning the Aurora, Colorado shootings, as well we should be.  This is the largest mass shooting in U.S. history.  But a look at international headlines shows that in Mexico, where guns are virtually impossible to legally obtain, a shooting that claims the lives of 14 people is a common occurrence:

1. October 23, 2010, at least 10 gunmen burst into a birthday party in a private home in Juarez, killing 13 people and wounding twenty.  The party was for a 15 year old boy; at least four of the people killed at the party were teenagers, and one wounded was nine years old.  This incident was the second shooting at a house party that month--in the first attack, gunmen stormed a house and killed six people.

2.  February 12, 2011, LA Times reports that 8 people, six of them waitresses, were gunned down in the Las Torres bar in Juarez, Mexico.  Assailants bearing assault rifles opened fire in the bar. Elsewhere throughout the city, an additional 10 people were killed in other shootings for a total of 18 deaths in 24 hours.

3. January 13, 2011, Mexican activist Susana Chavez was found strangled with one had cut off in Cuidad Juarez.  Chavez had worked during the 1990's to bring attention to the murders of hundreds of young low-income women in Juarez.  The Chihuahua State Attorney General's office said that Chavez's death was not the result of her activism but was the work of teenagers who cut off her hand to make authorities think she had been killed by organized crime.

4. April 5, 2011, CNN World reports that 41 people were murdered in Juarez, Mexico in four days, including a 10 year old boy who was shot and killed in an attack meant to kill his father.

I have known many people living in Juarez who have not been able to continue to run their businesses because of crime and violence.  Many are afraid to visit family members and loved ones because of the constant threat of violence. Danger is not confined to people involved in drug trafficking. In Mexico, business owners are routinely targeted for kidnappings.  In Mexico in 2011, an average of 49 kidnappings took place every single day.  In 2010, there were 13,505 abductions; in 2011 that number rose to 17,889.  These figures do not include "express kidnappings" which normally last just a few hours and are facilitated by taxi drivers.

Today with the election of the new president of Mexico, there appears to be general consensus that the city is going to become less violent.  Many attribute that to the fact that "El Chapo" Guzman and his Sinaloa Cartel have actually taken control of the city away from the Juarez cartel.  Last week, our local news featured a story about business owners who are once again reopening restaurants and nightclubs in downtown Juarez to take advantage of anticipated visits from Americans as well as to serve the needs of residents of Juarez who are becoming less afraid to go out in public.  These entrepreneurs admit openly that they are allowed to open these businesses only if they pay protection money to organized crime, but the "tax" that the cartels impose on them is just a cost of living and working in Mexico.

When the drug war started in 2008, many of us who own businesses and work in El Paso feared that the violence might spill over into our community. By and large, that has not happened. El Paso has been ranked for the past several years as one of the safest cities in the United States.  In 2010, there were just a mere 5 murders in El Paso.  In 2011 that number rose to 16, but six of those were proven to be domestic-violence related killings.  I could not find specific statistics regarding kidnappings in El Paso, but I did find FBI statistics that in 2010 the FBI had identified 25 cartel-related kidnappings along the entire Southwestern border of the United States.  Our city has made national headlines when bullets have strayed across the border and hit our city hall or bounced off a pedestrian, but the guns and gunmen connected to those bullets have remained on the other side of the border. (In a recent incident, a bullet grazed, but did not penetrate, the leg of a woman pushing a stroller near the border.  The bullet was believed to have come from a shoot- out involving automatic weapons taking place between masked gunman and authorities on the streets of Juarez.  The woman was treated for minor injuries and allowed to go home.)

So what is the difference?  Why is Juarez, Mexico, so dangerous and El Paso, Texas, so safe?  Some attribute Fort Bliss to the safety of our city, but the military is not allowed to function as a police force on U.S. soil.  And the mere presence of military does not make a city safe--during the height of the violence the president of Mexico stationed military troops in tanks on the streets of Juarez, but it did not stop the killings or the extortion or the other crimes.  In fact, residents just complained that they were now victims of crimes perpetrated by the soldiers.

Is it our law enforcement?  We do have a lot of federal law enforcement here--FBI, DEA, and ICE all have a powerful presence in our city.  But is that enough to keep armed gunmen at bay and to protect a population of over 800,000 people?  I don't think so.

Is it demographics?  No.  Many of the residents of El Paso have family members living in Juarez or in other parts of Mexico.  We are separated from Mexico by a few international bridges and a river--for the most part our culture and the dynamic of our community is the same.

The difference is guns.  Whereas Mexico has restrictive gun laws that allow criminals to access weapons illegally while keeping weapons away from the citizenry, El Paso is the beneficiary of Texas' gun laws which allow residents to carry guns openly and to apply for concealed carry permits.  Would be killers and kidnappers who operate without any real obstacles in Mexico know that if they enter an El Paso business to kill or extort money, they run a very good risk of being killed themselves.  And this is a better deterrent than the world's finest law enforcement.  Trained law enforcement may be able to successfully track down murderers after crimes have taken place and bring the perpetrators to justice, but an armed populace can keep those murders from ever happening in the first place.

Last week, I received a tweet criticizing my anti-gun control stance that said that mutually assured destruction is not a good deterrent.  I disagree.  Mutually assured destruction is often the only deterrent. A lifetime spent living a few miles from one of the most dangerous cities on earth has taught me that most violent criminals are also cowards.  They may not mind slaughtering everyone else, but they don't want to risk getting killed themselves.  Mexico is proof that complete disarmament of a society is not possible.  We just have to decide who we want to be armed--only the violent criminals, or the whole of society.  Having seen both situations up close, I definitely vote for the latter.

Alexandra Swann's new novel, The Planner, about an out of control, environmentally-driven government is available on Kindle and in paperback. She is also the author of No Regrets: How Homeschooling Earned me a Master's Degree at Age Sixteen. For more information, visit her website at Frontier 2000