Guns and More Guns
The statistics on guns in America are arresting. There are an estimated 393 million guns in civilian hands, the most of any nation by far and more than the total of the next 25 countries combined. Two-thirds of gun owners say they own them for protection. Yet in a recent year, guns were responsible for about 500 accidental deaths, more than 23,000 suicides and 14,000 murders. U.S. citizens justifiably used guns that year to kill 353 people involved in criminal activity.
In his third book, “Blood Gun Money: Firearms Trafficking Along America’s Iron River” (Bloomsbury, 400 pp., ★★★ out of four), out Tuesday, journalist Ioan Grillo approaches the issue of proliferating firearms from myriad angles. He talks to arms makers and street corner thugs, hit men and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents, gun buyers and sellers, and victims and perpetrators of gun violence.
The author also provides a concise and informative history of gun control as well as regulation rollbacks through the decades. The National Rifle Association once supported gun control measures, beginning in 1934 and as recently as 1968.
Grillo brings more than two decades of intimate experience to the task, much of that spent in Mexico covering the impact of the “iron river” of firearms that flows south from America into the hands of drug cartels and remorseless gangsters. His book is not overtly polemic, although he confesses that it is personal. He writes, “In the two decades I have been living in Mexico, I have watched the bloodshed rise like a tidal wave, destroying too many lives and with them the broader hopes of the nation.”
In 12 workmanlike chapters, the author looks at virtually every facet of gun culture, laws and trends, and their implication not only for the United States but also for its neighbors in South and Central America. He lays out in great detail where the guns come from and how they meander through various loopholes that often allow them to pass undetected and unrecorded from legal hands into illegal ones.
Grillo also ably documents the synergy between the gun trade and the drug trade. The guns flow south from America and the drugs surge north, oftentimes as part of the same round-trip excursion. There is also, of course, a large market for illegal weapons inside America itself.
By the end of the book, the author proposes a few modest measures that would not infringe on legitimate gun owners but would make the Western Hemisphere a bit safer. Reporting all sales of .50 caliber rifles to the ATF is one. This weapon was designed for combat, is accurate to 2,000 yards, and can penetrate structures and destroy light armored vehicles. It’s not designed for hunting deer. Mexican cartels are quite fond of it.
Another suggestion is to limit the number of firearms a person can buy at one time. When someone walks into a gun store and buys ten identical Kalashnikov rifles or 85 handguns, more attention should be paid, according to Grillo. Despite the recent history of gun control futility, Grillo holds out hope: “When talking to gun enthusiasts, I have been surprised how many are open to measures when you really lay them out.” Indeed, a 2019 Pew Research Center survey found that 60% of Americans favor stricter gun laws.
Two other interesting stats that Grillo cites: while the number of guns that Americans own increases annually, the percentage of Americans who own guns has declined from more than half to less than a third since the 1970s; and in 2018, gun safety organizations outspent gun rights groups in the Congressional midterm elections.