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Mexico Firearms Laws

By David B. Kopel

This is an entry from Guns in American Society: An Encyclopedia of History, Politics, Culture, and the Law. The entry is titled "Mexico." For a Spanish translation of this article, please click here: en Español. For more articles by Kopel about gun rights and gun control in Mexico, click here. Kopel's full text translation of the Mexican gun control statute is here

The Mexican Constitution guarantees the right of Mexicans to possess arms. Even so, gun control laws in Mexico are very strict, and police discretion in enforcement makes possession of firearms of greater than .22 very difficult.

The Cinco de Mayo celebration, commemorating Mexico's 1867 victory against French colonialists enjoys a little-known tie to American firearms. Before the French Emperor Napoleon III overthrew the Mexican government in 1863, Benito Juárez had been serving as President of Mexico. When the French occupied Mexico City, he set up a resistance movement in northern Mexico. There, he ordered 1,000 Winchester Model 1866 carbines in .44 caliber, to be delivered to Monterrey, along with 500 cartridges per gun. The Juárez forces paid $57,000 in silver coin. "R.M." - for "Republic of Mexico" - was inscribed on the frames of the carbines. Today, "Juarez Winchesters" are very valuable collectors items.

In Death by Government (Transaction, 1994), R.J. Rummel estimates that between 1900 and 1920, various Mexican governments killed over 1.4 million people, through slave labor, executions, and other means, not including the hundreds of thousands more who died at the hands of rebels or from other war-related causes.

A new constitution, adopted in 1917, at last recognized a right to arms. Article 10 of the Mexican Constitution, as amended, states:

"The inhabitants of the United Mexican States have the right to possess arms in their homes for their security and legitimate defense with the exception of those prohibited by federal law and of those reserved for the exclusive use of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and National Guard. Federal law shall determine the cases, conditions and place in which the inhabitants may be authorized to bear arms."

In the middle of the twentieth century, firearms laws and their enforcement had become liberal enough so that Mexico was a popular hunting destination for Americans, and Mexican hunters could invent a new shooting sport. "Silhouette shooting" - shooting at metal silhouette targets in the shape of game animals -originated in Mexico in the early 1950s. Mexican hunters were looking for ways to sharpen their eyes between hunting seasons, and so began shooting at live animals who had been placed on a high ridgeline, visible in silhouette from hundreds of yards away. Whoever shot the animal would win a prize. American hunters near the Mexican border - most notably the Tucson Rifle Club -- adopted the sport, but used life-sized metal targets instead - hence the sport's name of "Siluetas Metalicas."

The sport originally used high-power rifles to shoot at metal silhouettes of wild chickens, javelinas, turkeys, sheep, and other game. In the 1970s, the National Rifle Association put silhouette shooting into its competition schedule, and created separate classes for smallbore rifle (.22), air rifles, and both smallbore and centerfire handguns. This allowed the competitions to take place on much smaller ranges than the 500 meter ranges which had been standard for the high-power event. Since then, the sport has spread worldwide, and many competitive shooters specialize in silhouette competition. "Siluetas Metalicas" remains the proper name for silhouette shooting with high-power rifles (6mm and up).

In Mexico as in the United States, civil unrest in 1968 led to important new restrictions on firearms. Before then, many types of rifles and handguns were freely available. Anti-government student movements, however, scared the government into closing firearms stores, and registering all weapons. Compliance with the registration has been very low.

Today, notwithstanding the constitutional right, arms possession in Mexico is severely restricted by a wide network of laws. Article 160 of the Federal Penal Code authorizes government employees to carry guns. Article 161 requires a license to carry or sell handguns. Article 162 provides penalties for violations, and also bans the stockpiling of arms without permission. Article 163 states that handguns may only be sold by mercantile establishments, not by individuals. Further, handgun carry permit applicants must post a bond, must prove their need, and must supply five character references.

The most important gun laws are contained in the Federal Law of Firearms and Explosives. It establishes a Federal Arms Registry controlled by the Ministry of National Defense. Both the federal and state governments are required to conduct public information campaigns to discourage all forms of weapons ownership and carrying. Only sports-related advertising of firearms is permitted.

Title Two of the Federal Law of Firearms allows possession and carrying of handguns in a calibers of .380 or less, although some calibers are excluded, most notably .357 magnum and 9mm parabellum.

Members of agricultural collectives and other rural workers are allowed to carry the aforesaid handguns, .22 rifles, and shotguns, as long as they stay outside of urban areas, and obtain a license.

Hunters and target shooters may obtain licenses for the above types of firearms, as well as higher-powered rifles. There are a variety of exceptions for particular guns, detailed in the Library of Congress volume cited at the end of this entry. Gun collecting is allowed, with a license and registration. Possession of firearms for home defense is legally permitted. All guns must be registered with the Ministry of National Defense within 30 days of acquisition. Licensees may only buy ammunition for the caliber of gun for which they are licensed.

In practice, possession of firearms above .22 caliber is severely restricted. As with much of the rest of Mexican law enforcement, corruption is a major element of the gun licensing system.

Because government permits are difficult to obtain, there is a thriving market in smuggled handguns from the United States. One effort to control smuggling was Operation Forward Trace, conducted in the 1990s by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. BATF agents examined federal gun registration documents (Form 4473) held on file at gun stores in southwestern states, and recorded the names and addresses of buyers - especially those with Hispanic names - who had purchased self-loading rifles or inexpensive handguns. BATF then contacted the purchasers, and demanded to know where the guns were.

In July 2001, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and Mexican Attorney General Rafael Macedo de la Concha announced a cooperative law enforcement program, aimed partly at weapons smuggling. Mexican police would provide computerized information about seized firearms to the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) so that BATF can trace the guns. for criminal investigation. Ashcroft also assigned US prosecutors in districts bordering Mexico to serve as contacts on gun smuggling cases.

Even government agencies, frustrated with the Defense Ministry, sometimes smuggle in their own weapons from the U.S.

In August 1985, the army -- using the pretext of a routine inspection -- confiscated the weapons of the Juarez police. Many observers believed the confiscation took place because the city government was controlled by PAN, the leading opposition party. Guns confiscated by the police or the military often end up on the black market.

In 1994, Mexico had a total homicide rate of 17.6 per 100,000 population. Of these homicides, 9.9 were by firearm, and 7.7 by other means. Mexican law enforcement against violent crime is widely regarded as ineffectual and dishonest.

Temporary gun licenses for sporting purposes may be issued to tourists. Mexican law provides penalties of at least five to as many as 30 years in prison for tourists who attempt to bring a firearm, or even a single round of ammunition, into Mexico without prior permission. In the past, the law was enforced stringently, even in cases where the violation was accidental. In December 1998, however, the Mexican Congress enacted legislation relaxing the law for first-time, unintentional violations involving only a single gun. Now, first-timers will be fined $1,000, but not imprisoned. The exemption does not apply for military weapons or calibers - which by Mexican law means any handgun above .380 in caliber, as well as a wide variety of rifles.

For further information: Library of Congress, Firearms Regulations in Various Foreign Countries (Wash.: May 1998)(LL98-3, 97-2010).

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