MEXICO CITY— Mexico doesn't have much of a gun culture but the country could be on the verge of a heated debate on the right to bear arms.
A Senator from Mexico’s conservative National Action Party (PAN) is backing a bill that would reform the Constitution to allow firearm possession inside private businesses and vehicles. The proposal also seeks to allow bus drivers, cabbies, truckers and other transportation operators to carry firearms to protect themselves, their merchandise and their passengers.
“The Mexican Constitution already allows citizens to possess certain firearms inside their homes, and we simply want to extend that right to other places,” Jorge Luis Preciado, the Senator leading the gun rights reform, told Fusion.
Preciado says most Mexicans don't report crime because they don't trust the authorities. He says his reform initiative, which he intends to formally introduce in the Senate this week, was born out of the inability of Mexican institutions to uphold the rule of law.
“We are in the midst of a very complex situation and we are simply arguing that if the State cannot protect us then it should at least allow us to defend ourselves,” he said.
Preciado’s proposal is already being slammed by politicians from both ends of the spectrum, as well as his own party’s leadership, which quickly distanced itself from the pro-gun initiative. Critics say the senator from the central state of Colima is trying to copycat U.S. gun laws, which many Mexicans associate with U.S. school shootings and senseless violence.
“Those who have criticized the initiative are arguing in extremes,” Preciado explained. “They think Mexicans are going to arm themselves from one day to the next.”
Preciado insists his bill would make sure all weapons are purchased through Mexico’s National Defense Ministry, and that buyers comply with strict and thorough background checks, including physical and psychological exams. He says his proposal also calls for a database of fingerprints and DNA records of all gun owners.
The senator says his bill would not allow Mexicans to purchase high-caliber weapons, such as the the type of assault rifles that were used in recent U.S. massacres.
The right to bear arms is an issue no Mexican politician has seriously addressed in more than 40 years.
He says Mexico’s current firearm possession laws were drafted in 1971 and implemented a year later as small marxist-leaning guerrilla groups rose up in arms in the southern part of the country and as the government orchestrated the killing and disappearance of protesters and dissidents.
Preciado claims gun regulations were more of a tactical move by the administration of then-President Luis Echeverría, often credited with orchestrating the infamous student massacre of 1968, to make sure no group could challenge the army and the State. In short, according to Preciado, it was never about protecting people from shootings.
Critics say Preciado’s proposal isn’t viable and that he’s just trying to get his face in the paper. But there’s been other recent challenges to Mexico’s gun taboo.
The country’s firearms regulations, which prohibit civilians from acquiring high-caliber weapons that are for the exclusive use of the military, were recently ignored by the so-called autodefensas or vigilante groups that armed themselves in the southern state of Michoacán to fight back local drug traffickers and cartels. The vigilantes became the law across many towns, substituting the army and the cops.
The rise of the vigilantes, and the subsequent transformation of some of those groups into cartels of their own, triggered a national debate on citizens arming themselves to take matters into their own hands when the government fails to guarantee public safety.
Senator Preciado says his proposal is about self-defense but also basic equality.
“In Mexico there’s a huge gap between the rich and the poor,” he said. “The rich can purchase bullet-proof cars and hire bodyguards that are heavily armed. But those who don't have the money are left at the mercy of God. We are talking about inequality here and the current laws discriminate against those that can’t afford private security.”
He says easing Mexico’s gun laws, considered to be some of the strictest in the world, could help the country avoid the expansion of its weapons black market.
“Criminals have a monopoly on violence because they already acquire all the illegal U.S. firearms that cross the border,” he said. “What I want is for them to know that the next time they plan to rob a business, a house or a car they can expect some form of defense on the other side.”
Preciado insists his proposal is not meant to substitute state security, but simply respond to what he says is the country's new reality.
“Political parties continue to say we should bet on the police system. If they can guarantee that tomorrow the police will not allow robberies and extortions and that a judge is not going to let perpetrators walk free… then I’ll withdraw this initiative.”