by Francisco Javier Garcia Bellego, MPA '23 for Annotations Blog
On August 5, 2021, anyone who looked at the main Mexican newspapers’ front pages could have guessed that it was going to be an important day for the country’s bilateral relation with the United States. The previous day, the Mexican government filed a suit in a Massachusetts court against eleven American gun manufacturers for knowingly engaging in negligent commercial actions that have exacerbated the rampant crime and bloodshed in Mexico. These actions include, but are not limited to, the lack of traceability devices in guns, marketing around Mexican cultural paraphernalia, and lax policies around distribution.
This lawsuit’s story, nonetheless, did not make it to any of the front pages of the largest U.S. newspapers—its importance was overshadowed, for instance, by coverage of Richard Branson’s ride to space on the Virgin Galactic. This kind of public indifference is unfortunately very common on bilateral issues between countries with an asymmetric power relation. The problem with this particular indifference, however, is that it represents a missed opportunity to leverage a policy decision in a neighboring country to advance a key part of the U.S. domestic agenda. In this specific example, there are concrete political gains the Biden administration can extract from this lawsuit that are currently being ignored.
Given the interconnectedness of our policy agendas and strong cooperation schemes, there is a clear connection between America’s loose gun control laws and Mexico’s violence problem.
According to the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs, American gun manufacturers’ negligent practices have led to losses of between 1.5% and 6% of the Mexican Gross Domestic Product (GDP). However, due to the illegal nature of the phenomenon, calculations are heavily based on broad assumptions. There are, though, three facts that both the Mexican and American authorities agree on. First, half a million guns are smuggled each year from the United States to Mexico. Second, 70% of the weapons confiscated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) every year are found along the southern border. Lastly, these guns were responsible for killing 17,000 people in 2019 alone. These are the facts that sustain the Mexican government’s demand and that are unarguably accepted by American authorities.
Given the interconnectedness of our policy agendas and strong cooperation schemes, there is a clear connection between America’s loose gun control laws and Mexico’s violence problem. Unfortunately, the American government has ignored the Mexican Embassy’s diplomatic note communicating the lawsuit. While it is true that policies focused on Mexico’s internal violence problem are unlikely to find their way onto the President’s desk, there are some components of that reality that, as I mentioned earlier, can offer a window of opportunity to advance certain interests.
Gun control policy is a particularly clear case to prove this idea: It is a policy area in which President Biden has found much frustration in putting forward his ambitious goals. The President considers gun violence a public health epidemic and hence proposes different measures to control it, ranging from tougher regulation to effective law enforcement in all three levels of government. However, this proposed agenda has met some difficulties since the very beginning. For instance, just recently, the U.S. Senate voted against confirming Biden’s pick to lead the ATF, apparently due to the power of the gun lobby on one hand, and the lack of a strategy from the White House on the other. It seems from this snapshot that, throughout his first eight months, Biden has not found the critical junction between the enabling conditions and political willingness to put his gun control agenda on the right track.
The current administration can still take Mexico’s unprecedented legal action as an opportunity to reframe the narrative on gun control and gain the momentum that Biden has been lacking on this issue for the past months.
By connecting the dots backwards, the Mexican lawsuit could have the potential to serve as a needed window of opportunity for Biden to advance his agenda. It can provide the political momentum to help the current administration frame the gun control narrative in terms of the implications it has on American lives along the southern border, an issue Republicans tend to complain about. By shifting the public debate on how gun companies’ reckless commercial activities are enabling violence against millions of Americans in the border region, Biden can score a couple of political gains. This framing will expose the GOP’s rather contradictory stance on border security issues. This could potentially influence the votes of approximately 4% of Republican Hispanics, who may see gun violence as a small problem but simultaneously frame border insecurity in terms of the threats that undocumented migrants and drug cartels pose. A second potential gain is by pressuring Republican incumbents from border states whose districts’ demographics are turning purple. These representatives will face reelection in November 2022 and, if the proper public debate framing is set for the elections, their constituents’ border security demands might shift towards tighter gun control. In the end, both gains could serve the purpose that Biden has been desperately seeking: passing a gun control reform by the end of his term.
The potential outcomes of this window of opportunity are undoubtedly within the Democrats’ interests. The roadmap, however, becomes less obvious when offered by a country that some perceive as a troublemaker rather than an equal partner. Whether or not Biden missed the news of the lawsuit because it was not covered on the New York Times’ front page is no longer relevant. The current administration can still take Mexico’s unprecedented legal action as an opportunity to reframe the narrative on gun control and gain the momentum that Biden has been lacking on this issue for the past months. This public campaign is a low hanging fruit in terms of its implementation, since no coordination with Mexican authorities is needed, nor is a favorable result before the Courts required. But, again, when thinking about the asymmetry in certain bilateral relations, it is hard to reckon that some news do not make it to the front pages simply because of pure lack of interest.
Meet the Author: Francisco Javier Garcia Bellego
Francisco studied a double degree in Political Science and International Relations at Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM). He has five years of experience working at the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where he worked as a protocol officer for the President’s diplomatic agenda. In 2018, he joined the Mexican Agency of International Cooperation for Development. There, he partnered with national and multilateral organizations to execute development projects addressing irregular regional migration. As a member of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ LGBTQ+ network, he promoted the officiation of same-sex marriages in Mexican consulates. His policy interests are international cooperation for development, US-Mexico relation, and migration.