By Andres Oppenheimer

When we talk about the violence that has left nearly 50,000 dead in Mexico over the past five years, we usually focus on Mexico's Sinaloa cartel, or the Juárez cartel, but it may be time to include the U.S. National Rifle Association cartel. Granted, the 4.3 million-member NRA -- the most powerful pro-gun rights lobbying group in Washington -- is not in the drug trafficking business.

But judging from what Mexican President Felipe Calderón said earlier this week during a joint news conference with President Barack Obama in Washington, and from what U.S. gun control groups state, the NRA and other U.S. gun owners' rights organizations have a huge tacit responsibility in the bloodshed that is taking place in Mexico.

The NRA and other gun lobby groups consistently block efforts to restrict the massive sale of high-power assault weapons across the border, which end up in the cartels' hands, they say. In particular, Calderón cited the gun lobby-supported U.S. decision to lift a ban on assault weapons that expired in 2004. Calderón said he spent much of the time during his meeting with Obama on Monday urging him to seek a restoration of the ban.

"It's been shown that when there is an excessive, quick availability of weapons in any given society, there is an increase in violence," Calderón said at the joint news conference after their meeting. "The expiration of the assault weapons ban in the year 2004 coincided almost exactly with the beginning of the harshest period of violence we've ever seen.

"During my government, we have seized over 140,000 weapons in four years. And I think that the vast majority have been assault weapons, AK-57s, etc. And many, the vast majority of these weapons, were sold in gun shops in the United States," Calderón said, adding that there are an estimated 8,000 gun shops along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Calderón did not mention the NRA by name, but leading Mexican activists are pointing at it as one of the main obstacles to reducing the mass killings in their country.

"The NRA is an accomplice of the drug cartels," says Sergio Aguayo, president of Mexico's the Alianza Civica (Civic Alliance) civil rights group, which is planning with other Mexican and U.S. groups a six-week caravan stretching from San Diego to Washington to raise awareness of the gun smuggling problem.

Jon Lowy, a senior official with the Brady Center in Washington, a U.S. gun control advocacy group, told me that "It's clear that the outrageously weak U.S. gun laws have contributed greatly to the flow of guns to the drug cartels in Mexico." He added, "Congress' failure to renew the assault weapons ban has contributed to this, and so has the failure of Congress to require background checks at gun shows and other private gun sales.

"There is no reason why high volume bulk gun sales are allowed, so a trafficker working for a cartel can go to a gun store and buy 10, or 20 or 100 assault weapons in one purchase."

The NRA rejects that most of Mexico's drug cartel weapons are smuggled from the United States. It says that most of them are legally-imported weapons that are being sold by corrupt Mexican police and army officers to the drug cartels.

"There have been about 100,000 desertions from the Mexican military into the drug cartels over the past seven years, and one would have to be extremely naive to think that when those deserters leave their base, they are doing it empty-handed, without raiding the armory," NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam told me.

"What needs to happen is that the Mexican government needs to crack down on the pervasive corruption that runs rampant within its own government, law enforcement, military and judicial circles," he added.

Last year, the NRA sued the Obama administration for regulation requiring that gun merchants in U.S.-Mexico border states report bulk sales of assault weapons. It accused the administration of acting without congressional approval. Arulanandam said the measure is "ridiculous," because "it tries to go after multibillion-dollar criminal enterprises like drug cartels by going after them with a paperwork violation."

My opinion: The NRA and U.S. gun manufacturers have the right to defend the U.S. Constitution's Second Amendment provision allowing Americans to keep and bear arms. But the Second Amendment doesn't say that Americans have the right to buy bazookas, or AK-47s, or other military-style weapons, or to purchase dozens of them and sell them to whoever they want.

It's time to stop this nonsense, which is causing so many deaths in Mexico, and also in the United States.



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