Macklis agrees that the laws are harsh but says that since 30 to 40 percent of the drug cases in Tijuana also involve guns, draconian measures are justified. (A report issued by the Mexican department of the interior cites the illegal transportation of weapons as the crime with the most deleterious effect upon Mexican society. The same report states that between January and June 1999, 4250 guns were seized by law enforcement.)
Some Americans who live in Baja or visit regularly bring guns. I know one retired American who lived in Rosarito and openly boasted of having a pistol for protection until he was informed he was violating Mexican law. "Americans sometimes come here with a gun," says César Rodríguez, "thinking they're going to face violence. But if you're carrying a gun, you are considered violent. And they think, 'Well, if they catch me in Mexico with the gun, I'll just give the cop $50, and I'm gone.' But that's so wrong, so mistaken."
A spokeswoman at the U.S. consulate in Tijuana says that in the fiscal year '98-'99, 88 Americans were jailed in Baja for violating firearms laws. Circumstances of the arrests and the average sentence were not available.
Macklis guesses that every one in three Mexican families has a gun for home protection and that very few of those are registered. As to why so few register their guns, Rodríguez adds, "because they're probably stolen."
Most, though, are likely imported. Captain J.H. Leal, in charge of gun registration at the main army base in Tijuana, says that while some guns come into Mexico from China and South America, the majority are illegally imported from the United States. I know a mechanic in Tijuana whose cousin, active in the narcotics trade, presented him a gift of an AK 47, with ammo. One night, just for the hell of it, he fired off some rounds and says that the police patrols cruised the neighborhood for hours seeking the source of the noise. A body-shop worker in the same neighborhood inherited a Smith & Wesson .38 Special from his mother, who accepted it as collateral for a loan she'd once made to a cop. It was stamped with the mark of the Tijuana Police Department. The mechanic figured, therefore, it would be taken if he tried to register it.
According to Captain Leal, such confiscation would not happen. Only about 10 percent of the applications are rejected, he says. The process costs a few pesos and takes five minutes. He admits only about five or ten people a week show up to register guns, and most of these are gun-club members. But he knows of many illegal guns in Baja; as he points out, "If they're not registered, they're illegal."
A Tijuanan who once worked in a San Diego gun shop and is familiar with gun ownership in Mexico dismissed the 90-approval claim. "Lots of times they just hassle you," says this person, who requested anonymity. "You can go [to the base] with a legal .22, and they'll say it 'looks military' and won't accept it." Those wishing to legally own more than one gun must belong to a gun club, in which case up to ten are permitted. Because many of these guns will be hunting rifles and thus transported, the government requires these guns be re-registered every six months.
There are 24 gun clubs in the state of Baja, including two in Tijuana and two in Rosarito. Each club has between 10 and 80 members and costs about $300 a year to join. Much of the shooting that goes on at these clubs is officially sponsored Olympic-style competition. Bernabé (Bernie) Hernández, owner of one of the Rosarito clubs, relates this information as he drives to his club in the hills of Rosarito, some five miles east of the coast. (Hernández also owns a Rosarito insurance agency with a lot of American clients.) Of the 20 club members, two are Americans.
The Rosarito Shooting, Hunting, and Fishing Club is more elaborate than a typical American rifle range. It looks like a resort, and Hernández says he's planning to build cabins for overnight guests. No prohibited weapons will ever be used here; these include, says Hernández, all calibers larger than a .38 but also include 9 mm, .357 magnum, and .38 semi-automatics. For $30, American visitors may come for a day of shooting the club's guns -- including a rifle once used by Chuck Connors on The Rifleman television series -- and enjoy a barbecue of goat or pheasant, which are raised on the property. But actually joining such a club is a lot more difficult.
Applicants, says Hernández, "must show proof of residence, good character, and an honest way of living. No criminal record, and you have to have a lab test to prove you're not a drug user." If a person does not own a gun he can buy one from a club member or travel to Mexico City for the once-a-year army sale of firearms, mostly those that had been confiscated from violators. Those unable to make the journey to Mexico City can buy a gun by mail from the army, but they'll have to wait a long time. Similarly, ammunition can be bought at a government-authorized store in Tijuana, and then only if one is a gun-club member.
Hernández does not resent such restrictions; he fully supports the recent increase in penalties, believing it the only way the government can stop drug-trafficking and related violence. National Rifle Association-style carping is offered by the former clerk at a San Diego gun shop, who snorts at the requirement to re-register every six months. "By the time the license to transport the hunting gun arrives, four months have gone by, and you have to start all over again."
This dissident says the government wants people to think only criminals have guns. "They say gun ownership is low in Mexico. But it's not that it's low, it's that everyone has a gun but nobody registers it."
The Tijuana restaurant owner with the illegal .45 shares this view. "Nobody I know who has handguns has registered them," she says. "You remember what they did years ago, when all the dollar accounts in the banks were turned into worthless pesos? Nobody trusts the government. What they did with the pesos they'll do someday with the guns. They have your address, they'll come to take them."