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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.

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