The Newtown Massacre: Another Lost Opportunity

Guns for sale at Dick's Sporting Goods store | by: Svadilfari | Flickr | Creative Commons

Guns for sale at Dick’s Sporting Goods store | by: Svadilfari | Flickr | Creative Commons

Latin Americans clearly are not holding their breath waiting for the United States to translate shock into action in the wake of the killing of 20 first-graders and six teachers at a school in Newtown, Connecticut, two months ago. In December and January, media such as El Espectador (Uruguay), La República (Peru), and El Universal (Mexico) reported that the easy access to firearms and lax gun controls were factors in the massacre.  While making note of President Obama’s pledge to reduce gun violence, including proposals he is sending to the U.S. Congress, few if any commentators in the region expressed confidence that the legislature, many of whose members are beholden to the National Rifle Association, will do anything.

Instead, Latin American media – presumably reflecting the values of their societies – point out the irony that, while the United States mourned the senseless loss of its children and politicians made emotional speeches, gun killings continue unabated.  They gave prominent coverage last week to an analysis by the on-line U.S. magazine Slate, documenting that 1,774 Americans – including 31 children, 101 adolescents, and 283 women – have been killed in the two months after Newtown.  The Excelsior of Mexico quoted U.S. political commentator Mark Shields as saying that since Senator and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968 “more Americans have died from gunfire than died in all the wars of [U.S.] history.”

As the largest source of illegal weapons to Mexico, Central America and perhaps the rest of Latin America, the United States’ inability to control its own violence has a direct bearing on the region.  Rather than clamor for action as they would in the past, Latin American opinion-makers appear resigned to U.S. inaction – and puzzled at how a single lobby can prevail on an issue as sensitive as the safety of schoolchildren.  The dismay will only be fueled by reports by The Christian Science Monitor and other prestigious U.S. media this week that the “assault weapons ban” under consideration in Washington would exempt more than 2,200 specific firearms, including a semi-automatic rifle that is nearly identical to one of the guns used in the bloodiest shootout in FBI history. A retired FBI agent called the proposal “a joke,” and so will many Latin Americans.  As recently as 2010, Latin American governments called on Washington to ratify the Inter-American Convention against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives, and Other Related Materials (called CIFTA) – signed by the Clinton Administration in 1997 – but it is clearly a bridge too far now.

Washington Politics: Fast and Very Furious

Photo by Ryan J. Reilly via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license

The operation codenamed “Fast and Furious” remains a hot topic in Washington two years after it went awry.  Conducted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the operation was intended to monitor the flow of weapons – through a “controlled delivery” – from Arizona gun dealers into the illegal channels by which tens of thousands of arms clandestinely enter Mexico each year.  Tracking the arms would allow the U.S. Government to disrupt the network.  However, ATF lost track of the weapons – and they reached their intended buyers.  The failure was made worse when traces showed that two of the weapons were used to kill a U.S. Border Patrol agent near the Mexican border in December 2010.

While both political parties in Washington have expressed disappointment, the Republicans have made the failed operation the centerpiece of efforts to weaken Attorney General Eric Holder (ATF is an agency of the Department of Justice, over which the Attorney General presides) and to discredit President Obama, according to numerous press reports.  The vote in the House of Representatives last week [[June 28]]to find Holder “in contempt” – for not handing over all of ATF’s internal documents on Fast and Furious that the Republicans demanded – was a party-line vote.  Many Democrats walked out of the chamber.

The political maneuvering around Fast and Furious has nothing to do with foreign policy, but the weakening of ATF undermines what modest efforts were under way to stanch the flow of illicit arms into Mexico and Central America.  “Controlled deliveries” are a standard operation for intelligence and law-enforcement agencies, and every agency involved in border issues has suffered similar mistakes.  ATF is the smallest such agency (2,500 special agents compared to FBI’s 13,400 and DEA’s 5,500) and is therefore more vulnerable to the internecine backstabbing.  In addition, ATF’s enforcement of laws relating to the use, manufacture, and possession of firearms often puts it at odds with American politicians who feel the agency threatens their interpretation of the gun rights under the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  The attacks on the ATF appear intended to weaken enforcement of U.S. law and embarrass the Attorney General and the President.  The obstacles to a sound policy of limiting the flow of weapons into Latin America are evidenced by the virulence of the debate over Fast and Furious.