Imagine if the dreamy beaches of the Caribbean were drenched in deadly toxins, dumped offshore by U.S. companies. That’s happening—except the toxins are illegal guns sold by U.S. dealers to traffickers, leading to spiraling gun violence in Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, the Bahamas, and throughout the region. Now Caribbean heads of state are fighting back, pledging an assault weapons ban and supporting a lawsuit brought by the Mexican government to hold U.S. gun makers accountable for arms trafficking.
The nations of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) are some of the world’s most beautiful, synonymous with peace and tranquility. But U.S. guns are disrupting them and pose an existential threat. Gun violence in the region is at epidemic proportions, with homicide rates among the highest in the world. Jamaica’s is 46.5 per 100,000 people—more than five times that of the U.S.
CARICOM countries don’t make guns; guns flood their shores from the U.S. Over 98 percent of guns recovered in the Bahamas come from the States, as do about 80 percent of crime guns throughout the region. That’s the price of living in the backyard of the world’s largest gun supplier.
Gun traffickers find willing dealers in the U.S.—often in Florida, or another convenient state with lax gun laws. There they buy all the guns they desire, then can make 400 percent profits by selling them abroad. U.S. law enforcement focuses on prosecuting the traffickers, who are easily replaced from a seemingly endless supply of people lured by big profits. The dealers and manufacturers, who profit from supplying the crime gun pipeline, generally stay open for business.
To be clear, most U.S. dealers sell guns the right way. A 2000 ATF study found that about 90 percent of gun dealers sell no crime guns. The problem is that about 5 percent of dealers sell almost 90 percent of crime guns. These bad apple dealers are more than willing to sell guns by the dozen to obvious traffickers. They could easily spot and stop most traffickers by paying attention to well-known indicators like buying multiple guns and repeat purchases. But they don’t.
Two decades ago the U.S. Department of Justice told gun manufacturers to stop supplying high crime gun sellers, and require safe practices and monitoring to screen out illegal sales. But that would cut off profits from the crime gun market, and they have refused.
While it would be relatively simple for U.S. gun dealers and manufacturers to stop supplying traffickers, for Caribbean governments, it is nearly impossible. Caribbean law enforcement can’t detect all the U.S. guns coming in. They arrive wrapped and hidden in everything from cars to cereal boxes, sometimes disassembled. The islands have ample coastlines on which criminals can find places to unload their gun shipments, and ample fleets of boats with cargo into which they can blend.
To deal with the crime fueled by U.S. guns, Caribbean nations have been forced to increase their security budgets, diverting money that otherwise would have been spent on education, social spending, and anti-violence programs designed to prevent crime and alleviate the conditions that foster it. That’s on top of the resources Caribbean governments have already diverted from other areas to fund the war on drugs at U.S. request. It’s a vicious cycle.
CARICOM nations need not look far to see where all of this could lead. In Haiti, gangs armed to the teeth with mostly U.S. guns have seized territory, including in the capital, killing hundreds, and terrorizing thousands. It’s a threat to sovereignty.
Caribbean leaders have had enough, and are taking action. I was privileged to witness this firsthand at a regional symposium on violence in Trinidad last month. It was remarkable to see high-ranking officials, including nine heads of state, listen attentively and engage with experts on gun violence for two full days, then issue bold calls for action immediately after—in stark contrast to Congress’ failure to act to prevent mass slaughter in the U.S. They are calling for a “war” on illegal guns, including banning assault weapons in the Caribbean, and cracking down on trafficking in the U.S.
The way to stop the flow of crime guns is to crack down on the gun industry itself. Gun dealers and manufacturers are a huge part of the crime gun pipeline problem. To shut it off, they must become part of the solution. That will require reforming dangerous practices of gun manufacturers, distributors and dealers, and stronger enforcement from the Biden administration.
Whether it’s toxic pollution or crime guns, no country has the right to harm its neighbors, and the U.S. has a responsibility to shut off the spigot. Stopping gun trafficking would not only help stem the tide of gun violence from Jamaica to Trinidad and Tobago, it would also help protect U.S. communities from New York to Los Angeles.
Jonathan Lowy is founder and president of the NGO Global Action Against Gun Violence.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.