U.S. Guns, Central American Violence?

U.S. Guns, Central American Violence?

Over at The New Republic, Alec MacGillis alleges that America's gun laws are helping to fuel the border crisis: Central American gangs buy guns here through straw purchasers, and then smuggle the weapons back home. He notes the stiff opposition the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives encountered when it required gun stores in the four states along the Mexican border to report purchases of two or more long guns, as well as the political difficulty one would have trying to expand the rule nationwide.

He has a point. There is a gun-running problem, and the multiple-sale requirement is encountering more resistance than it probably should. But are guns from the U.S. really to blame, to any significant degree, for Central American violence? I have some issues with the way MacGillis goes about arguing they are:

According to data collected by the ATF, nearly half of the guns seized from criminals in El Salvador and submitted for tracing in the ATF's online system last year originated in the U.S., versus 38 and 24 percent in Honduras and Guatemala, respectively. Many of those guns were imported through legal channels, either to government or law enforcement agencies in the three countries or to firearms dealers there. But a not-insignificant number of the U.S.-sourced guns -- more than 20 percent in both Guatemala and Honduras -- were traced to retail sales in the U.S. That is, they were sold by U.S. gun dealers and then transported south, typically hidden in vehicles headed across Mexico, though sometimes also stowed in checked airline luggage, air cargo, or even boat shipments. (Similar ratios were found in traces the ATF conducted in 2009 of 6,000 seized guns stored in a Guatemalan military bunker -- 40 percent of the guns came from the United States, and slightly less than half of those were found to have been legally imported, leaving hundreds that were apparently trafficked.)

To MacGillis's credit, he does a much better job of using the ATF data than most journalists do -- he notes that these are not percentages of all crime guns recovered in each country, but merely percentages of guns seized and submitted to the U.S. for tracing. Unfortunately, though, this concession undermines the rest of his analysis. The ATF itself cautions that the data MacGillis uses do not constitute a "random sample"; guns are more likely to be submitted to the U.S. if foreign law-enforcement agencies have a reason to believe they actually came from the U.S.

Variations in the percentage of these guns that really did come from the U.S., therefore, don't mean much -- most likely, they just show that some countries are more thorough in sending trace requests and/or less skilled when it comes to guessing whether a gun is American. Neither do variations in the percentage of U.S.-sourced guns that came from retail stores -- this number will be affected not only by the flow of trafficked guns (the numerator) but also by the flow of legally traded guns (which makes up the rest of the denominator). The only number MacGillis provides that's useful is the one from the Guatemalan military bunker: It's a single collection of guns, so the stat may not be generalizable, but at least the denominator is a collection of illegal guns found naturally.

There are some other ways to analyze the ATF's trace data, however. First of all, we might want to get a better sense of the raw numbers. These confirm another contention MacGillis makes, which is that Mexico has a far bigger problem with American guns than Central America does (he cites both proximity and Mexico's more restrictive domestic gun laws). The biggest Central American source of gun traces that led to U.S. retail stores in 2013, Guatemala, submitted 133 of them. All six countries combined had only 391. By contrast, in most years, more than 5,000 guns from Mexico are traced to retail purchases from the U.S.

We can also try dividing the number of guns traced to U.S. retail stores by other statistics -- here, I'll try each country's total population and its total number of intentional homicides. These calculations assume, of course, that trace data reflect the overall prevalence of trafficked guns in a country. In fact, it's likely that some countries are more likely than others not to bother submitting guns that were in fact trafficked -- or that some countries have better law enforcement and find a higher percentage of all trafficked guns -- and this will throw off the calculations. So, while I think this is a useful exercise, take the results with a grain of salt.

By looking at total population, we can get a sense of which countries have the biggest appetite for illegal U.S. guns on a per capita basis. Belize seems to be an outlier thanks to its small size (20 gun traces but a population of less than a third of a million):

It's also helpful to see how each country's U.S. gun problem stacks up to its overall homicide problem. Note that this is not the percentage of homicides resulting from guns trafficked from the U.S. -- not all traced guns were used in homicides, so that number might be lower than what you see here, and not all homicide guns are found or traced, so it might be higher too. It's just a way of comparing the two problems:

So, every year, Central America as a whole traces one gun to a U.S. retail store for every 100,000 people living there and every 50 intentional homicides that occur. No question, that's much higher than the ideal number, which is zero. But is it high enough to make U.S. gun laws a significant driver of Central American violence, especially considering the far higher numbers for Mexico (about one for every 25,000 population and almost one for every five homicides)? It's hard to say: We don't know how accurate of a portrait these numbers paint, and even if we had better data it would be hard to say how effective stricter gun laws would be at staunching the flow of guns, not to mention how big of a homicide reduction a reduced flow of American guns would bring. [Update: ... and not to mention how many refugees would stay home thanks to a reduction in homicides. There's some evidence the border crisis isn't mainly driven by violence. Hat tip to Greg Pollowitz at National Review.]

You can download a spreadsheet containing the data for this post here.

Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen

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