LETTER FROM MEXICO

In Mexico, only one gun store but no dearth of violence

Mexico's ongoing drug war continues to claim lives and disrupt order in the country.

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Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 29, 2010; 12:01 AM

MEXICO CITY - In all of Mexico, there is only one gun store. The shop, known officially as the Directorate of Arms and Munitions Sales, is operated by the Mexican military. The clerks wear pressed green camouflage. They are soldiers.

The only gun store in Mexico is not very busy.

To go shopping for a gun in Mexico, customers must come to Mexico City - even if they live 1,300 miles away in Ciudad Juarez. To gain entry to the store, which is on a secure military base, customers must present valid identification, pass through a metal detector, yield to the security wand and surrender cellphones and cameras.

To buy a gun, clients must submit references and prove that their income is honestly earned, that their record is free of criminal charges and that their military obligations, if any, have been fulfilled with honor. They are fingerprinted and photographed. Finally, if judged worthy of owning a small-caliber weapon to protect home and hearth, they are allowed to buy just one. And a box of bullets.

Mexico has some of the toughest gun-control laws in the world, a matter of pride for the nation's citizens. Yet Mexico is awash in weapons.

President Felipe Calderon reported this month that Mexican forces have captured more than 93,000 weapons in four years. Mexican authorities insist that 90 percent of those weapons have been smuggled from the United States. The U.S. and Mexican governments have worked together to trace 73,000 seized weapons, but both refuse to release the results of the traces.

More than 6,600 federally licensed firearm dealers operate on the U.S. side of the border. At least 14 million guns are thought to have been sold in the United States last year, according to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. But no one knows the exact number.

In Mexico, Lt. Col. Raul Manzano Velez, director of the gun shop, knows with precision his annual sales figures. On average, the military has sold 6,490 firearms each year since 2006. Legal gun sales are decreasing, even as seizures of illegal weapons soar.

Daniel Mendoza has come to shop at Mexico's only gun store with a friend. He is interested in something to protect his family. He described himself as a middle-class businessman and was vague about prior gun ownership.

Asked whether Mexico's gun-control laws were working, Mendoza said, "Ask the criminals."

The Mexican military has been handling gun sales in strict military fashion since 1995. "Only a tiny percentage of our weapons end up in the hands of criminals," Manzano said. That percentage, he said, is less than 1.


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