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Arms, the United States, and the Americas

Author: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
July 31, 2013
Folha de Sao Paulo

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Originally published in Portuguese on Folha de Sao Paulo:

Not long after a teenage boy massacred 27 children and teachers in Connecticut last year, a Brazilian student asked me if I thought the United States has "a culture of violence." A truism: Americans do like their guns. And some really do live by a frontier maxim of individualism, often tied to zealous passion for the Constitution's second amendment. But the reason we have an under-regulated market in high-powered weaponry and ammunition is more about politics than a mythological culture: the arms industry simply has too much power.

Latin Americans, especially Mexicans and Central Americans, experience the spillover effects of our lax gun laws. In 2010, for example, the gun-related homicide rate in the region exceeded the global average by 30 percent. The World Bank estimates that crime and violence cost Central America nearly 8 percent of its GDP. Brazil, with its own arms industry too, has the highest number of yearly gun homicides in the world, followed by Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela. The highest rates of gun homicide in the world are also in Latin America, led by Honduras. And it's not just the guns and ammo that are flowing north to south. Its politics too. In 2005 the National Rifle Administration (NRA) helped defeat a referendum in Brazil that would have banned the sale of guns and ammunition to private citizens.

After the massacres in Texas, Arizona, Colorado and Connecticut during their administration, Barack Obama and Joe Biden and a range of gun control advocacy groups, have begun to challenge the tactics of the NRA. Some states, such as California, Connecticut and Maryland, have passed strict gun laws, despite the impasse in the U.S. congress.

The American civilian firearms industry continues to supply the region's transnational criminal networks with weaponry. Earlier this year the U.S. Senate rejected measures to expand background checks, reinstate the federal assault weapons ban, and make straw purchasing a federal crime. It will take a while for the domestic politics around guns to change. But in foreign policy, Washington has some options to make its rhetoric about "shared responsibility" more of a reality with executive actions to reduce trafficking in assault weapons and ammunition in the Americas. You can read about it here at cfr.org in "A Strategy to Reduce Gun Violence in the Americas," published this week.

Brazil has the second largest weapons industry in the Americas. Does that mean the United States and Brazil share a 'culture of violence'? I don't know. But both countries share responsibility to stem the flow of light arms around the region. Here's my answer to that student: When President Dilma visits Washington this October, how about the two presidents stand together and launch a U.S-Brazil strategy to reduce the region's existing stocks of illegal firearms?

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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