"Ghost guns" are on display at the headquarters of the San Francisco Police Department in San Francisco, 2019. Families of those killed and wounded in a rural California shooting rampage in 2017 sued manufacturers and sellers of ghost gun kits that provide easy-to-assemble firearm parts that make it difficult to track or regulate owners.
Gun policy is a very politicized issue in the US that impacts people across borders. President Joe Biden announced this week his desire to further regulate "ghost guns," which are homemade firearms made from parts bought online that don't have traceable serial numbers.
Biden would like to see the individual kits and parts treated as weapons with serial numbers and require background checks. It's the first major gun control legislation in two decades that Democrats in Congress are trying to pass under the new administration. Biden says it is "long past time" to do so.
A bipartisan Senate compromise that was narrowly defeated eight years ago was focused on expanding checks to sales at gun shows and on the internet. But Republicans say extending the requirements would trample Second Amendment rights. And the National Rifle Association (NRA), while weakened by some infighting and financial disputes, is still a powerful force in GOP campaigns.
Around the world, these weapons often make their way into the hands of organized crime groups, creating dangerous living conditions for ordinary people.
Ioan Grillo is an author and journalist based in Mexico City who has reported on ghost guns. He's published a new book called "Blood Gun Money: How America Arms Gangs and Cartels." Grillo spoke to The World's host Marco Werman about the situation with ghost guns in the US.
Ioan, what can you tell us about the proliferation of ghost guns in Latin America?
Well, it's an increasingly serious issue. So, I can think of a couple of cases of various serious organized crime groups taking advantage of the huge market in gun parts in the United States. One is the Jalisco cartel. There was one raid back in 2014 of workshops of the Jalisco cartel where they found them assembling AR-15s; they had assembled 100 already with some machinery and parts almost certainly bought in the United States in 2019 in Florida. Customs inspectors found 100 receivers, which are one of the main parts for AR-15s. This led them to trace them down, going to Argentina, something called Operation Patagonia. And they found a group there called the PCC, which was assembling these rifles in workshops, and they found 2,500 guns. So, this is a serious pipeline of weaponry.
Is there a clear sense of who is behind the creation and distribution of these types of weapons in Latin America? And are the creators traveling to the US to collect them and sell them back in Jalisco, for example?
People buy in the United States, online. You can order these kits, take them over the border quite easily. I had one interview with somebody who was also running gun parts over the border close to Ciudad Juárez. He was an American who actually had, was laying cable on both sides of the border and had a government permit and was taking advantage of that to traffic firearms. So, it's one way people could bring them easily and in bulk to Mexico. And also, the advantage of having no serial numbers. Then, when these are used in crimes, you can't trace them.
And Latin American governments, have they had ghost guns on their radars? Are they generally aware that this has been going on — cross-border trafficking ghost gun parts?
There is now, in the Mexican government, a move to take this issue seriously. This issue was kind of off the agenda for about a decade, but now we are seeing Latin American governments take this seriously. I was also in Los Angeles. I mean, right now the sheer numbers of ghost guns are not that high in a percentage. But I think one other reason that the need to act against ghost guns, as well as other firearms trafficking, is if you stop other firearms trafficking, they'll just switch to ghost guns.
You've spoken a lot about Mexico, Ioan. What about countries like El Salvador and Honduras where gang violence is out of control? How have authorities there handled their own response to ghost guns and have those actions been at all effective?
So, the Central American countries, including El Salvador and Honduras, also are places where there are a lot of guns from the United States to where they are trafficked to. So, it is very important that the United States' firearms market is linked to the violence in these countries, which then causes many people fleeing these countries for refuge on the US border.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
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