MEXICO CITY — Luis Merino may be the loneliest gun rights activist in North America.
Like a kid in a pastry shop, he gazes longingly into the display cases of 9mm handguns and sleek semiautomatic rifles here at the Directorate of Arms and Munitions Sales, the only gun store in this entire country. Run by the Mexican military, it restricts purchases of such models to police departments.
“The ones we can buy are over there,” Merino said, pointing across the store to the deer rifles and small handguns, no larger than a .380 caliber.
Yet Merino has gotten little traction trying to marshal a campaign for looser gun laws through his Facebook group, Mexico Armado (Mexico Armed).
“I’ve tried to contact congressmen, senators. They never respond,” said Merino, a Mexican military veteran who works as a private security consultant. “At this moment there are few of us, but when we have built a movement and we have votes, they’re going to have to pay attention to us.”
If, to some, the relatively lax gun laws in the United States seem to be out of whack with those of other industrialized nations, frustrated activists such as Merino say Mexico’s tight regulations are even further out of whack with his country’s heavily armed reality.
Nowhere has this been more evident recently than in the mafia-plagued western state of Michoacan, where the government has tried to contain the spread of vigilante militias in recent months by organizing them into rural defense forces with offers of a one-time amnesty for their unregistered (i.e., illegal) guns.
Thousands of farmers and ranchers have queued up for hours to legalize AK-47s, AR-15s and other powerful weapons whose mere possession is supposed to be a major criminal offense. With so many nominally prohibited guns coming out of the woodwork, some Mexicans in other states are asking why they, too, shouldn’t have the right to own such a weapon.
Guns have long been a fixture of rural life here, as much a part of the landscape as they are in the American West. The Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) was waged with the rifles and muskets of humble peasants. In the late 1960s, a central government wary of new uprisings by leftist guerrillas sharply curbed gun sales and permits, imposing some of the toughest restrictions in the Western Hemisphere.
In the decades that followed, Mexico morphed into the bleak dystopia of National Rifle Association nightmares, where the criminals are well-armed, the cops are often crooked and an honest, law-abiding citizen faces stifling bureaucracy just to get a handgun for self-defense.
Meanwhile, many Mexicans look north with horror and bewilderment to a land where deranged young men casually mow down first-graders, taking comfort knowing their crazies can’t just order up a Glock on the Internet. After all, people here tend to kill for power and money, not to act out some video-game fantasy or prove a point to their mothers.
Yet even as the two countries grow more economically and culturally entwined, their gun policies couldn’t be more divergent.
“Just as politicians in the U.S. don’t want to talk about tightening gun restrictions, Mexican politicians wouldn’t propose weakening them,” one high-ranking Mexican official said on the condition of anonymity in order to speak candidly. “Our policy has essentially been defined in opposition to U.S. gun laws.”
Ernesto Villanueva, a legal studies scholar at Mexico’s National Autonomous University and the author of one of the few books on the country’s firearms regulations, said the Mexican government has waged a long public relations campaign to “demonize” gun ownership and “associate firearms with criminals.”
Gun restrictions have become “a matter of faith in our culture, like the Virgin of Guadalupe,” he said. “Even if experts say she doesn’t exist, it’s very difficult to change people’s minds.”
Villanueva said he reached out to the NRA for political guidance but was told that conditions in Mexico weren’t yet ripe for change.
“They said if we formed an advocacy group, they could help us with advice, training, media skills, and how to conduct advertising campaigns,” Villanueva said.
NRA officials at the group’s headquarters in Virginia did not return calls seeking comment for this report.
In the gulf between U.S. and Mexican gun laws, illegal weapons traffickers have flourished, especially with the explosion of drug-cartel violence in the past decade. The flow of weapons from Arizona and Texas arms dealers into Mexico became a source of bilateral tension during the presidency of Felipe Calderón, from 2006 to 2012, boiling over with the “Fast and Furious” weapons-smuggling scandal.
An AK-47-style rifle that costs less than $1,000 at a U.S. gun shop is worth more than $5,000 on the black market in high-crime states such as Michoacan.
Alfredo Castillo, the government’s top security official in the state and a former prosecutor, said that registering formerly illegal weapons could help Mexico solve more crimes and reduce immunity rates that exceed 90 percent in some states. The gun-registration program he has directed in Michoacan has furnished authorities with a ballistic database making weapons used in any future crimes immediately traceable to their legal owners.
With a population of 115 million, Mexico has 3 million licensed firearms, but as many as 15 million unregistered guns may be sitting in closet shoe boxes and drug cartels’ arsenals, according to scholars’ estimates.
No one knows the real number. Even as thousands of Michoacan residents arrived to register their weapons in recent months, other militiamen in the state boycotted the process, convinced the government would eventually come to take their guns away. They complained that they would be vulnerable to prosecution if caught carrying the weapons, which the permits stipulate must be kept at home.
“It’s like giving you a TV but keeping the remote control,” said Alfredo Viveros, a local militia commander and attorney near the Michoacan town of Tancitaro, where avocado growers banded together last winter to run off cartel extortionists and kidnappers.
“You have the TV but they tell you how you can use it, what you can watch, and when to turn it off,” he said. “Your freedom and ability to protect yourself is still very limited.”
Mexico City resident Irma Avila, 49, joined the Mexico Armado gun advocacy group after she was mugged at knifepoint on her way home from work two years ago. Six months later, she was ready with a .22 pistol when a thief tried to snatch her handbag. She shot him in the foot, and he hobbled away.
“I want a weapon to be able to defend myself as a woman,” she said. “A gun is an equalizer.”
Avila had her eye on a .380 Sig Sauer pistol at the military-run store.
“It’s small,” she said. “It’ll fit nicely in my purse.”