Reporter’s Notebook: America, Guns & Mexico
Marley Elizabeth’s voice quivered when I met her on the Avenue of the Americas as dozens of NRA members left George R. Brown Convention Center on the first day of their three-day conference. The 23-year-old Mexican American preschool teacher said she is sickened by the violence against Latino, Black, and Asian people. “You can’t be safe anywhere”, she says with a shaky voice. “The fear and pain that I see in the kids that I teach every time they hear the siren is heartbreaking.”
A few minutes before, former President Donald Trump had finished his speech before the NRA where he spoke about the existence of that violence, that "evil", as a fundamental reason for Americans to exercise their right to bear arms, as the Second Amendment dictates.
My colleague Toya Sarno Jordan and I recently received a Pulitzer Grant for Crisis Reporting to document how gun smuggling from the US southern states to Mexico has resulted in a flow of people north to escape violence.
I traveled from Mexico City to Houston to cover the NRA convention; we received our press credentials a week before the massacre in Uvalde. The reason for this trip, originally, had been to understand why people in the U.S. feel the need to carry guns.
In Mexico, the process to own a gun legally is very long, and only a few licenses are granted each year. Even so, according to the Mexican government data, almost 500,000 weapons are smuggled every year.
The Mexican government sued 11 gun manufacturers last August, and while it is an ongoing case that few Americans know about and is a complicated, multi-faceted issue, it is important to analyze the broader international impact of these policies. Oasis Outback, where the Uvalde shooter bought his AR15, has had a history with gun smugglers.
In Mexico, gun violence represents 100,000 missing persons and more than 350,000 deaths. Despite these numbers, Mexico is far from the exceptionalism of its northern neighbor.
When I picked up my credentials at the conference, I received a red pass that allowed me to take pictures but not interview anybody. If I wanted to talk to people, I would have to go to the press office and request an escort who would be assigned to me for 15 minute-intervals
But those sorts of restrictions only applied for some; media aligned with the NRA’s interests or who pushed hard enough snagged a green pass that offered more access.
During the day I was able to listen to speeches from both sides of Avenida Las Americas, from those protesting for gun reform at the Discovery Green Park in Downtown Houston, and those who were attending the NRA convention. On one side, under the 100-degree heat, there was a lot of frustration, anger and sadness, with people of all ages and backgrounds. On the other side, inside the venue under the stage lights and in the comfort of the AC, mostly white people listened to lobbyists advocating for their Second Amendment rights which means no regulations, concealed-carrying or background checks. The same manufacturers that are pushing these laws, allegedly, attract and arm cartels in Mexico.
The horror in Uvalde and the 19 children and two teachers that lost their lives at the hands of an 18-year-old who legally purchased two weapons and reportedly was in possession of more ammunition than a U.S. combat soldier carries into war, reopened the polarizing polemic that this country has been grappling with for years: whether teachers should carry guns, if there should be more armed police at schools, and the importance of knowing how to use a gun at an early age.
Aura Espinoza, 37, was protesting outside the NRA convention wearing a t-shirt that said, “From immigrants with love.” She was visibly mad and told me, “It’s almost like they are mocking us”.
People all over the world who have kids, like me, went home that day of the tragedy in Uvalde thinking, what if that was my child? Espinoza has the same thought; however, the difference with me, or someone who saw the news in New Zealand where carrying guns is banned, is that the U.S. is a “constitutional carry” state. Her kids keep asking her why people carry guns. She tells me she still doesn’t know how to explain this to them.
The Uvalde community struck down by this dreadful event is predominantly Latino. By all accounts coming from the massive media presence that descended on the Texas town in recent days, they are humble, hard-working people, raising families and chasing a better life—the American dream. Some have deep roots in Mexico—a country where violence exists but that does not have the mass shootings that the U.S. experiences. But the bottom line is that both countries’ guns come from the same place—the United States of America, where gun manufacturers lobby to give citizens the access to carry weapons.
During those three days at the convention, I discovered two things. First, most NRA members are also looking for a sense of community, of belonging somewhere. People at the convention I managed to talk to told me this convention was a place of gathering, of reuniting with family and a place to defend their loved ones and their rights, especially the Second Amendment. I witnessed couples holding hands, families with children, groups of friends, members of gun club and sporting and hunting communities–people who have known each other for decades looking at guns and accessories together.
The second thing was that most of the attendees believe they need this association because they must defend themselves if they feel threatened. However, they sometimes seemed to be averse to anything that is too different from them. For example, they were very nice to me, until they saw my press pass and decided I was part of the “evil media.” I wanted to take a picture of an ammunition display when the owner stopped me and said he didn’t want me to photograph any of his merchandise because I didn’t align with his ideas.
My accent also didn't help. During these three days, NRA organizers pulled me out several times. When they heard my accent, they asked me where I live, where I’m from, why I didn’t have an escort. I have dual citizenship. I’m also French, a fact which came in handy whenever my Mexican side seemed to make someone uncomfortable.
While I was having a coffee at a nearby hotel, an elderly man, a member of the NRA, came to talk to me. We chatted for about 40 minutes. We covered a lot of ground: the economy, COVID, his family, his childhood, weapons, the NRA. He explained to me why Trump was one of the only people who could defend the country at the border. My Mexican blood started boiling, and I couldn’t help myself. I had to confess that I was Mexican. He told me I was probably “one of the few good ones”.
The irony is that people that are against gun control are usually against immigration as well, as my new coffee friend let me know. What they don’t seem to understand is that their Second Amendment also applies to narcos who can freely buy guns in the U.S. and smuggle them to Mexico.
Hours before the Uvalde shooting my phone had buzzed with a breaking news alarm from the AP: “Eleven people, eight of them women, were killed in simultaneous shooting attacks on two bars in north-central Mexico.” Most of these killings are not properly investigated and the government often implies victims were involved in criminal activities. Up to 90 percent of weapons involved in these shootings come from the U.S.
On the first day of the conference, while we were in line to enter the gun-free zone where Trump, Cruz and others were giving their speeches, secret service agents were going through the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) NRA convention-goers’ belongings. Right in front of me, a 70-year-old woman, perhaps discerning something in the features or countenance of one of the agents, asked him, “Honey, are you legally in the country?” The agent, a woman, blushed and just looked down.
One way or another these ideas are reinforced in each speech and exchange. While Trump was giving his speech, he called on Jack Wilson, who saved a group of churchgoers in White Settlement, Texas in 2019 when a gunman in a fake beard and wig entered the church and killed two people. Notably, five or six others in the church also drew their guns. Gun-rights advocates frequently use this event as an example to support open-carry laws. The 71-year-old Wilson, like many Trump supporters, questions the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election and is convinced Trump is still his president. He made this declaration while the crowd applauded him. Minutes later, Trump assured the audience that all migrants represent a threat. He also talked about the Remain in Mexico program, and referenced the border. Both ideas in a span of less than 60 minutes.
What many in the U.S. don’t realize is how closely related Americans’ addiction to guns and drugs is to the violence south of the border. Mexican cartels are among the most powerful in the world because they supply the U.S. market of drugs and defend their trafficking routes with U.S. guns.
It was very interesting to see people’s reaction to Trump. None of the speakers elicited this emotional audience reaction. I had seen the photos and videos of him before with his crowds of admirers, but being there to experience it in person was something else. I would look at people in the audience instead of at Trump and they had this admiration in their eyes, most of them recording videos with their cellphones, clapping, nodding to every idea. The incredibly high energy never diminished throughout the hour-long speech.
I walked out before the speech was over, at the same time as a bearded man who, when he saw the protesters just outside said, "I wish I had my AR 15. I'd shoot em all."
Because at the end of the day, what’s a threat? Who decides? What is “reasonable force” or self-defense? In a country where you can shoot someone if you feel threatened, I hope this man was joking; but the truth is he really could have pulled out his gun and shot them all.
I approached one of the protestors, a man who had been there for hours. Jack Hill, a 72-year-old retired professor who used to teach religion at Texas Christian University. We discussed this last idea of how people at the NRA convention felt threatened by protestors, how the police felt the need to protect the conference-goers. Most of them were facing the protesters, some were on horses. I asked him if there was a way for Americans to reach some consensus. He was really agitated; he said the US had a disease called weapons: “The racism and the white supremacy inherent to this shooting; that is where polarization comes from.”
“People here don't think it can happen in America,” he added. “But we're looking at fascism in the face. And if people don't wake up to that, we're going to lose our freedoms.”
He referred to the attacks on the Asian community. “It's happened to the Jewish community,” he added, “And it certainly has happened to the Muslim community in this country. I think that that part of the polarization is because we are in a war for the American soul.”
That Friday evening, after covering the protests and the convention I bumped into a couple that was calmly walking in downtown Houston. We started chatting and Leila, 55, told me that the most painful thing about all this shooting is how political parties monetize these terrible situations. “Both parties are basically corporations; we end up trusting in the one that has the best social plans,” she said.
After three days of covering the NRA conference, on the final day, I had two final tasks: one was to record as much sound as I could for my research, and the other was having as many people from the NRA on record.
I decided to carry an AR15–to hold one in my hands; I needed the audio. It is not as heavy as it looks, but my hands were shaking. For our research, Toya and I had to play the part to record the sounds of what loading a gun sounds like. I tried to imagine what a lot of people feel when they hear that sound during a shooting or hear it again if they somehow survived one.
We knew they were going to throw us both out of the convention at some point, so we made the most of our time while we were there, even with this unhappy and trying task. I do not feel bad for being kicked out. I do not feel bad about the people who refused to talk to me. I think they really believe they have the truth and don’t want to be criticized.
But I also feel they don’t realize they’re defending ideas that are killing people. These are not just cool toys to brandish for social media selfies; these are weapons.
As I finally left the convention center for the last time, Michael Hernandez, 31, whose father was killed last year, agreed to talk to me. He was glad a reporter wanted to know his side of the story. He believes its people and their circumstances who kill people. As he walked out of the NRA convention and saw the protestors, he shared that “the divide is kind of scary." He added that people may want to discuss firearms when we think about security in schools, but “there's plenty of things that we can all look at and focus on, like mental health… Everybody's had a discussion about firearms.”
It might be, well, both? Policymakers, as they have after previous mass shootings, are focusing on mental health in the wake of the massacre in Uvalde –the small, unlikely town in Texas that has captured the attention of the world and has become another chapter in the story about the availability of assault rifles and high capacity magazines in the U.S.
A postscript: At least 33 mass shootings took place after the massacre in Uvalde, according to the Gun Violence Archive.