• Carlos Munoz Burgos

Interview: Eugenio Weigend - Gun Violence in the US and Abroad

Eugenio Weigend, associate director of Guns and Crime Policy at the Center for American Progress

The availability of firearms along with lax gun regulations can increase homicide rates in a country. In a previous post, I discussed how the highest percentage of homicides involving firearms in the Caribbean is found in The Bahamas (82.4%), Jamaica (73.4%), and Trinidad and Tobago (72.6%). Comparatively, these countries have a higher homicide rate than Barbados and Suriname, where knives are used in most crimes, and therefore, crimes tend to be less lethal. The United States is no exception to this hypothesis: states with the weakest gun regulations are the most violent.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), there were 38,658 gun deaths in 2016 in the US. This number is almost as high as the US vehicle deaths per year, which topped 40,000 in 2017. According to Gun Violence Archive, as of April 22, 2018, there had been 67 mass shooting in the US. Clearly, this is a problem that needs to be addressed, and the solution is more and smarter regulations.

To learn more about gun violence in the US and how this country exports violence abroad (more than 50,000 guns recovered in criminal investigations across 15 countries in North America, Central American and the Caribbean originated in the US), I spoke with Eugenio Weigend, associate director of Guns and Crime Policy at the Center for American Progress (CAP).

Should there be more gun regulation?

The regulations that we (CAP) propose are not only to reduce violence in the US, but to reduce arms trafficking to other countries. Most people in the US are in favor of more regulations. For instance, 67% of people in the US support banning the sale of assault weapons. Additionally, 97% of people agree that background checks should be conducted at all places where guns are sold. Currently, it is only required by law that background checks are conducted on individuals who purchase their firearms at Federal Firearm Licensed dealers. However, in most states, background checks are not required for purchases at guns shows or on the internet. People who abuse drugs, have a history of family violence, are known gun traffickers, or have committed any crimes, should not be allowed to buy guns. Better regulations would reduce violence in the US and abroad. These recommendations are not in conflict with the Second Amendment. The latest interpretation of this Amendment grants an individual the right to own a firearm, and also allows there to be regulations. In other words, the Second Amendment is not unlimited and is not in contrast with regulation.

If 97% of people support background checks at all places where guns are sold, why aren’t there any changes to policies or regulations?

The National Rifle Association (NRA), through its powerful lobbying, has control over many congressmen. Hence, there is lack of political will in Congress. Also, people don’t know that background checks are not conducted everywhere.

In a recent report that you co-authored, you mention that most guns used in homicides in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean are trafficked out of the US. What groups do these guns go to?

First, it is important to understand the supply side. There are 7,000 gun shops as well as gun shows along the US-Mexico border. This is certainly part of the problem.

Also, straw buyers are a big problem in gun trafficking. Straw buyers are people who buy guns legally, but sell them to a third person who is usually prohibited by law to purchase guns. Straw buyers can purchase AR15s or AK-47s, and then give them to traffickers who find ways to traffic them. For example, they sometimes place these guns inside stoves or refrigerators and take them across the border to Mexico. We are not clear how these guns go to criminal groups after they are trafficked across the border. It is important to point out, however, that these guns also go to civilians, and this has increased the lethality of other types of violence such as domestic violence.

Do you know how far south in the Americas these guns go to?

Our report only focuses on Mexico and Central America. This is because the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) only has data on these countries. However, trafficked guns certainly go all the way down to Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and other countries. Information on gun origin for Colombia and Brazil is needed and would be very useful to further understand gun trafficking. It is very likely that many guns in Colombia and Brazil come from the United States. 

Do these weapons also reach extremist groups in other parts of the world?

Yes, but Russia also plays an important role in arming the rest of the world. Asia is definitely armed by Russia and China. In the Americas, I would estimate that more than 50% of guns come from the US. Now, it is also important to mention that the US imports arms from abroad. AK-47s in the US come principally from Bulgaria and Rumania.

What about Canada?

Yes, guns do go across the northern border, but Canada is not a violent country. Additionally, Canada’s legal system is stronger than that of Mexico and Central American countries. Low impunity helps reduce violence. So the situation in Canada is different. However, 98% of arms found in crimes in Canada come from the US.

Globally, 41% of all homicides are committed with firearms. What percentage of homicides are committed with firearms in the US?

69% from 2007 to 2016

You mentioned that straw purchases are a real problem. What can be done about this?

Make it a federal crime. And have more oversight over gun shops. The problem is that ATF does not have enough resources for more oversight. It would take ATF 10 years to inspect all gun shops in the US. So, since gun shops know this, sometimes they don’t follow the law.

Mexico and Central America also need to step up their game in gun control. Focus at border controls is usually on drugs. Priorities should be refined to also focus efforts on gun control. Guns play an important role in Mexico’s and Central America’s violence, but there are other factors – such as corruption, impunity, and drug trafficking – that contribute to this region’s violence. The US also needs to understand its role in this region’s violence, including its high demand for drugs and high supply of weapons.

What is the role of the Second Amendment in all of this?

We (CAP) use the 2008 interpretation of the Second Amendment. This interpretation says that arms ownership and sales can be regulated. Hence, our recommendations don’t interfere with Second Amendment rights. The NRA creates this myth that Second Amendment rights are taken away from people with regulations. CAP does not want to take away rights, we just want to make sure that people who should not have guns, don’t have them. As mentioned before, most people in the US want increased regulations on background checks for example.

What do you think about assault weapons? Do people need them?

These are war weapons. Civilians don’t need these guns.

What do most people use guns for?

Most people use guns for self-defense and it’s their right. However, there are studies that say that the guns people have at home are more likely to be used against them or their families than against a threat. Some people use guns at gun ranges too.

Mass shootings are a problem in the US. What can be done to prevent them?  

It is very difficult to prevent or predict a mass shooting. However, looking for clues online could be useful. If someone says that they will be doing a mass shooting, act immediately. Better regulations can also prevent mass shootings. The states with the most lax regulations are the most violent. High suicide rates with firearms are also more prevalent in these states. Police also shoot more at people in these states because they know that the likelihood of people carrying guns is higher, and they don’t want to get shot. This is not to say that some police officers abuse their power and guns, but police are definitely more worried about getting shot in states with weak regulations. Evidence also shows that firearms used in crimes in New York or Chicago come from Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania, or other states with weak gun regulations.

What should regulations include to prevent gun violence?

First, regulations should look at who represents a risk to themselves and others. People with a history of drug abuse, domestic violence, or with restraining orders, represent a risk to themselves and others. These people should not be allowed to have guns. Cooperation and coordination between different relevant agencies and entities should be ramped up. The health community and police should collaborate for better background checks. Also, people charged with minor hate crimes or racism should be banned from owning a gun.  56,000 race-related crimes have been committed with a firearm. The shooting at an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina is an example of a race-related mass shooting. Mass shootings represent less than 1.5% of gun violence in the US, but they get the most media attention. Every day in the US, more than 95 people die by guns and more than 200 are injured.

What do you think the US Government will do about this issue?

We need to act at the state level. That is the best strategy. It will be difficult to change anything with this administration, especially since it received $30million from the NRA. Change also depends on Congress. The student movement is strong and I think it will have an impact in November. Some states have implemented meaningful changes regarding gun regulation. Oregon is one of these states. However, there are other states, like Kansas, that have reduced their regulations and now allow teachers to carry guns in schools.

What do you think about teachers carrying guns?

This will generate more risk for teachers and students. In Pennsylvania, a teacher accidentally left a gun in a restroom and kids 5 or 6 years old found it. Also, a teacher in Georgia barricaded himself in a classroom and fired a shot out of a window. It is a myth that armed teachers will save the day in a shooting. According to the FBI, in 160 gun-violence incidents, only 1 was stopped by a gun holder, while 21 were stopped by people with no guns. When former congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot, there was an armed person at the scene who almost shot the wrong person. In a state of chaos, teachers are likely to shoot the wrong person. 68% of National Education Association members reject the idea of arming teachers.

To sum this up, what would be your top recommendations to reduce gun violence in the US?

  • Background checks at all gun sale points

  • Regulations of assault weapons or magazines with more than a 10-bullets. These are war weapons and do not have a place in society.

  • Fix a loophole in domestic violence laws. If someone is married and is accused of domestic violence, that person cannot buy a gun. However, if a couple is not married, i.e. a boyfriend and a girlfriend, and a one of them is accused of domestic violence or has a restraining order, then this person can still buy a gun. This must be fixed.

  • Work at the state level. There are regulations such as emergency protection orders that allow police or families to temporarily suspend the right to buy or carry guns from people who may want to commit suicide or commit a violent act. This type of order would have been helpful in Florida’s latest mass shooting. Everyone knew that the shooter had problems and wanted to commit a violent act.

  • More gun research is needed. CDC has budgetary restrictions on gun research. These restrictions should be lifted.