Essay: After growing up with gun violence in Mexico, I don’t feel safer in the U.S.

Alejandra Velazquez, a freshman majoring in journalism, is a Hatchet opinions writer.

My mom had strict rules for her car. Don’t eat messy foods, don’t put the soles of your shoes on the seat and in the case of a shooting, take off your seatbelt and throw yourself to the ground. My sister would go underneath me and I would grab our backpacks and put them on top of us to use as a shield. We would practice regularly like students would practice lockdowns and fire drills in school. Shootings were a common occurrence in my hometown Reynosa, a small border town in Mexico where drug cartels abounded, and confrontations between drug cartels spilt onto the streets. Because of this, I rarely played outdoors and after-school clubs were scarce. And with all that said, gun control laws in Mexico are stricter than in the U.S.

When I moved to the U.S. four years ago, I expected a sense of security that came with the American dream. But the allowance of military-grade guns amongst U.S. citizens has permeated that sense of security and U.S. citizens should not have access to them.

Emily Robinson | Design Assistant

In Mexico, a person is only allowed to have handguns below the .38 caliber, with certain variations for hunting and shooting. Rifle guns — like the one used by Stephen Paddock, the shooter in Las Vegas, or Adam Lanza, the school shooter in Sandy Hook — are not allowed to be owned by civilians. These guns are classified as exclusive for the military due to the amount of damage they cause. And looking into the history of Mexico, mass shootings like the ones in the U.S. are rare.

But that didn’t stop bullet holes from being decor for buildings in my old town. The drug cartels smuggle in army-level guns, bought legally in the U.S., and use them as tools for their business. If one cartel provokes another, they confront each other in the streets and bystanders become collateral damage. The cartels have found themselves carrying weapons stronger than those the police have access to, making the police powerless.

In contrast, it is rare to see damage of this scale done by gang violence in the U.S. Most guns obtained by gangs here are not as powerful as those used by the Mexican cartels, who have more money to purchase expensive, army-level guns. But gun-related gang violence is not the biggest problem in the U.S. Rather, just like the Mexican cartels, the average U.S citizen can obtain an army-level gun without anyone batting an eye. In Mexico, when people see guns, they know that those carrying the guns are the bad guys because only cartel members have guns. These lines are blurred in the U.S. Just like a person can easily have a semi-automatic rifle to hunt on the weekends, one easily sneak into a school or a club with one. Although student organizations have rallied for gun control on campus, nothing in the U.S. is stopping anybody from causing shootings with army-level guns. In my town in Mexico, the sight of guns caused people to alert others that shootings were happening in certain areas. That’s not possible in the U.S. because everybody has the right to bear arms. The government tells us to say something if we see something, but it’s impossible to report a problem that is legal.

Gun ownership itself is not the problem, but it is the type of guns people can own. In 1997, two men from North Hollywood took notice of the type of guns that policemen in Los Angeles carried and bought protective gear against them. They later robbed a bank while carrying automatic weapons much stronger than ones the police used. They would have succeeded if not for the SWAT team that arrived with sufficient firepower and the rifles that the police obtained from a nearby firearms dealer after they heard about the event. This shootout led to more powerful weapons issued to policemen throughout the U.S. It was not until 20 years ago that the police started to realize that the more extreme danger was no longer coming from handheld guns but rather from army-level guns. And yet, two decades later, not much has changed.

In my old town, what gave the drug cartels an advantage was their access to army-level guns that other civilians – and the police – did not have. Yet anybody can buy any type of gun in the U.S. Indiana doesn’t even require background checks for buyers. While one could say that this allows people to use more powerful guns as protection against situations such as the North Hollywood shootout, the National Crime Victimization Survey has revealed that having a gun provides no statistically significant benefit to a victim during a criminal confrontation – rather, it further increases the chances of injury. For every person who uses guns as self-defense, six more use it for crimes, according to a Harvard University analysis from the federal National Crime Victimization Survey.

Because of my mom’s strict car rules, my sister and I were safe. We grew up knowing how to react in case a shooting ever happened near us. Gun control laws in Mexico were strict, and although that didn’t stop the drug cartels from using them, the reason was not because the gun laws failed. It was due to years of government infiltration and corruption. While certain states, like New Jersey and California, regulate guns more strictly, the regulations are ineffective and there is no federal mandate. Many can go and buy a semi-automatic rifle and a kit to convert it to automatic weapon. People want to protect their right to bear arms, and if they’ve gone this long thinking that, no anti-gun publicity will make them change their mind. But one must think about whether their right to bear arms means carrying practical guns or weapons used by the military to fight wars.

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