Pubdate: Wed, 29 Dec 2010
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Page: A01, Front Page
Copyright: 2010 The Washington Post Company
Author: William Booth


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.

But Manzano is not a fool. "We have a higher rate of crimes where the
weapon involved is coming from the black market, and that happens
because in our country, it is much easier to buy a gun on the black
market than" at his store, he said.

Manzano said the wide gulf in gun laws between Mexico and the United
States creates an almost irresistible arms-trafficking market for the
powerful criminal organizations terrorizing wide swaths of his country.

Manzano recently gave a visitor a brief tour of his shop. There are
several deer heads mounted on the wall and a handful of customers, who
mostly browse. Display cases filled with guns are arranged in two
rooms. The first room, which is labeled "Police Sales Only," is filled
with weapons that ordinary citizens cannot legally buy - the heavy
stuff, such as Bushmaster AR-15 assault rifles and Israeli Galil
machine guns, plus gas and concussion grenades, as well as bulletproof
vests and helmets.

The second room offers a wide selection of U.S. and European shotguns
and rifles - Berettas, Mossbergs - for hunting and competition. They
are being sold at very competitive prices but elicit few buyers.

"I think it's okay that there is a control for the sale of weapons,
but nowadays, the interest in sports shooting has been greatly
diminished and the young are not interested," said Manuel Yoshida,
president of the Shooting Club of Los Mochis in Sinaloa, the state
where the Pacific cartel and drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman reign

Yoshida added: "We have lost many members. And most of my clients have
brought their weapons from the U.S., because we are near the border.
Otherwise, it would be a problem for my customers having to go to
Mexico City to buy their guns. It's too far."

At the gun store, there is a display for small-caliber handguns sold
exclusively for domestic protection, in calibers no greater than a
.38. Glock and Smith & Wesson are well-represented. These guns are
legally allowed only at home - not in glove compartments, on waist
belts or inside businesses.

Members of the military, police and security firms are exempt from the
handgun-control law that applies to the general public. If a business
owner wants a gun to protect his cantina or muffler shop, he can apply
for a permit. A different permit is required to transport the weapon
from one place to another. The paperwork for the latter takes a couple
of weeks.

"In most cases, we suggest hiring a private security company, and, to
refrain from the use of a weapon, we invite people to use other
security mechanisms," Manzano said.

Alberto Islas, a security expert based in Mexico, said it is common
knowledge that the easiest way for the average citizen to buy a gun is
to ask a friendly local police officer.

"The cop will bring it to your house and show you how to load it,"
Islas said. "Of course, it is technically illegal."
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake