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Much of firearms traffic from the U.S. to Mexico happens illegally

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The recent mass shooting in Texas took place near the U.S. border, and that border with Mexico was part of the conversation that followed. On MORNING EDITION, state lawmaker Travis Clardy said Texans need their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms partly because of where they live.

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TRAVIS CLARDY: We have a porous southern border, have had since the entirety of the war on drugs. The men, material, drugs and guns can flow into this country in any number of ways.

INSKEEP: Representative Clardy is expressing a widespread view. In Uvalde, resident Pat Jackowski also named the border among his reasons for owning guns.

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PAT JACKOWSKI: We're having a huge problem with the border - people coming from everywhere, all over the world. And even the law enforcement will tell you, don't leave home without a gun; protect yourself.

INSKEEP: Other residents made similar remarks to other media, and their concern predates the shooting in Uvalde. Governor Greg Abbott said earlier this spring that he wanted to curb the flow of drugs, illegal immigrants and weapons into Texas. So we followed up. Is there a problem with guns crossing the border? Ioan Grillo is a journalist based in Mexico City.

IOAN GRILLO: That's a bit of a false statement about the drugs and guns coming from Mexico. It's really a two-way street. And you have a huge amount of drugs coming from Mexico to the United States but then a huge amount of guns going from the United States to Mexico. And the numbers on both sides are mind-boggling. You know, you do have these large amounts of heroin and now fentanyl and crystal meth and cocaine crossing the border from Mexico to the United States and, tragically, record deaths in the United States connected to this. But you have this huge amount of firearms going from the United States to Mexico, estimates are more than 200,000 firearms every year trafficked from the U.S. to Mexico - over 10 years, more than 2 million guns. And those guns used by extremely violent groups, cartels, who have carried out a humanitarian catastrophe.

INSKEEP: Is it legal to export so many weapons from the United States to Mexico?

GRILLO: Most of this huge traffic of firearms from the United States to Mexico is happening illegally. They're driven, and it's quite easy to drive into Mexico. One of the people I profiled, he was driving from Chihuahua to Dallas. He was buying about 12 to 15 AR-15s, and he was stashing them in fridges, in stoves and taking them into Mexico - that way, paying duty on those. Another person I profiled was actually using a cover. It was a U.S. citizen who was laying cable on both sides of the border and was using cover of this cable-laying network and a government ID to drive down into Mexico with gun parts.

INSKEEP: Is this done by the same cartels that are shipping drugs north?

GRILLO: Absolutely. The same criminal networks that are moving huge amounts of drugs into the United States are also taking these guns south. The trial of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman in New York, they detailed this large amount of gun trafficking that El Chapo's network was involved in and how they were moving thousands of rifles. What was interesting was, in that trial, they convicted El Chapo of drug trafficking; they didn't convict him for gun trafficking. But in the trial, they talked about this. And this gets into various things, one of them being that it's much easier to convict somebody for trafficking drugs than it is to convict somebody for trafficking guns. There is no federal firearms trafficking law, which is something quite surprising I discovered when researching this subject.

INSKEEP: I think you're telling me that the gun trade in America doesn't just add to violence in Latin America; it also harms the United States because it helps to fuel and power this drug trade. Is that what you're telling me?

GRILLO: Absolutely. I think it's true that the legal gun trade in the United States also fuels the drug trade, but it also - more than that, it fuels the violence in Mexico. It fuels the violence in Central America. And you see these same guns going down into Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, where it's very - been very high levels of violence in recent years. You've had huge amounts of people fleeing this and applying for asylum in the United States. So from the U.S. point of view as well, you're creating a more unstable neighborhood. You're creating large numbers of refugees fleeing to the United States in this same cycle. So you get this issue of guns at the core of U.S. politics, then this issue of refugees, asylum-seekers at the border and these actually both being very connected issues.

INSKEEP: So the guns may not defend me against refugees; the guns are causing the refugees.

GRILLO: Exactly, exactly. The kind of tragedy, really, is that, like, the guns flood down into these countries in Latin America, which have weaker institutions and are unable to cope with the kind of violence, whereas the United States is kind of a paradox in that it has large amounts of guns, large drug market, but it also has this very aggressive, sometimes too aggressive, law enforcement system which manages to create a counterbalance to that.

INSKEEP: Doesn't Mexico have quite strict gun laws?

GRILLO: Mexico has fairly strict gun laws. It actually has a right to bear arms in the Mexican constitution. But to do this - there's only one shop which sells them legally in the whole of Mexico, run by the army. You go, and then you have to present seven types of identification, including a letter from your employer and a clean criminal record. And the cartels, the gangsters, they don't use that way of getting guns 'cause they can get them so much more easily buying them in the United States.

INSKEEP: Does this in any way point to the futility of gun control - Mexico has these strict restrictions, and criminals just go right around them?

GRILLO: I think to say that gun control will never work is mistaken. If you look at, say, Europe, they've managed to have far less firearms on the street. I think something that kind of holds up the U.S. debate is this kind of idea of a binary on both sides. It's either, you know, for guns or against guns. And it's like - I think it's just simply trying to figure out a regulation that stops guns getting to the most violent criminals. Now, that's obviously not working right now when you have more than 200,000 firearms a year flowing into Mexico and going to some of the most violent criminals on the planet. That's obviously not working. And I feel there's not even really a basic attempt to make this work.

INSKEEP: We've been talking with Ioan Grillo, a journalist based in Mexico City who is author of the book "Blood Gun Money: How America Arms Gangs And Cartels." Thanks so much.

GRILLO: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.