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Gun ownership is illegal in Mexico. This statement has been heard more than once on Southern California talk radio. Sometimes a host or caller will qualify the comment by saying it is handguns that are banned south of the border.

Actually, gun ownership, handguns included, is legal in Mexico but in a form more restrictive than in the U.S. A lack of facts on the subject of guns north of the line is understandable, given that many Mexicans don't seem to know much about their own firearms laws. If they do, they've chosen to ignore them.

The manager of a curio shop in the heart of Tijuana's downtown says he owns several rifles legally, as he has them registered and was a member of a gun club when he purchased them. But he thought civilians were not allowed to own handguns, or if they were, "then 90 percent of the people who have them don't register them."

A few blocks away, the owner of a small restaurant admits she owns a handgun, a .45, which her husband brought in from the U.S. She once went to his gun club to practice with it when no one was there. "You can register handguns here [in Mexico]," she says, "but nothing bigger than a .22."

Although a Mexican customs official told me that few Mexicans own guns because they can't afford them, people find ways to obtain the weapons. One woman I know brought a handgun from the interior -- a gift from her father -- when she moved to Tijuana. Years ago a bartender of my acquaintance often expressed to his American customers his great desire to have a handgun for home protection, until finally someone brought him down a "Saturday-night special," which filled him with joy. A knowledgeable Tijuana resident says he knows of policemen who supplement their incomes by selling guns on the side.

Marco Antonio Macklis is a Tijuana attorney who has represented hundreds of clients who were arrested for carrying guns, either on their person or in their cars. These include Brian Johnston, the Marine sergeant who made headlines last year when he drove into Tijuana with firearms in his military vehicle.

"It didn't have to be like that," says Macklis. "The customs agent who detained him, it may be his mind was like this [Macklis narrows his finger and thumb to a sliver]. And he didn't understand English, and Johnston didn't understand Spanish." Macklis points out that some U.S. Customs and immigration people don't speak Spanish. "All those working the border should be bilingual."

Many problems, he thinks, could be solved if law enforcement and the military for both countries could reach an informal agreement, such as permitting armed pursuit of a suspect up to a kilometer across the international line. In Johnston's case, he says, "Mexican customs should have asked American customs to call Sergeant Johnston's military superiors to verify the truth of his story. We have to be more flexible."

Heavy political pressure got Johnston an early release, but Macklis claims that any American in like circumstances would be released once the absence of criminal intent was established. "The result would be the same, but it would take longer without the pressure. Maybe one or two months." The law, Macklis states, was changed last year to be more lenient for people who were clearly not intending to illegally import weapons into the country. "They'll keep the guns, and fine you. No [long] jail time. It's like a misdemeanor, not a felony."

Macklis has observed Mexico's changing policies about firearms over the years. When he was a child growing up in Tijuana, in the late '50s, he recalls seeing quite a few gun stores around town. "They were imported from the United States. You could buy a gun just like you'd buy a car. But they stopped all arms selling in 1968, with the violence during the Olympics. That's when the government closed the gun stores." All that's sold now in the sporting-goods stores, he says, are BB guns and pellet guns, similar to bird-shot rifles.

Hunting rifles and small handguns, mostly under .38 caliber, may be legally owned by Mexican citizens and permanent residents, provided they are properly registered. No firearm that is in standard use by the Mexican army is permitted to civilians. The army, acting on behalf of the secretary of national defense, also handles the registration process in the various cities throughout Mexico. Even if a gun was brought into the country illegally it can still be registered without problem, says Macklis, even if you are the person who brought in the gun. "The criminal act works against you only at the moment you do it. If I have a gun here, they can't put me on trial for [illegally] importing that gun two years ago, or one week ago, or this morning. Even if I admit that I imported it."

About a year ago the government stiffened the penalties for firearms violations, other than the innocent mistakes at the border. According to Macklis, depending on the caliber of the guns and the circumstances of their seizure, the penalties will now range from three months to 12 years or more. Even being caught only with ammunition carries the same penalty. Being apprehended with a gun authorized for use only by the armed forces would mean a 10-year minimum sentence.

A young lawyer in Macklis's firm, César Rodríguez Diaz, says he is currently representing a Mexican client who was arrested at one of the police roadblocks common in northern Baja. Four .22s, a shotgun, and a 30:06 were discovered under some tarp in the back of his pickup. Rodríguez says his client will receive ten years.

"He's basically screwed. He confessed, he said he owned them and was going to sell them because he needed the money. He also had on him some marijuana and a little cocaine. But he's not a trafficker. He's a plumber with an '85 pickup truck. He was trying to make ends meet." A passenger in the truck, says Rodríguez, will also get ten years, even though he knew nothing of the guns.

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."

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