SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
It may be surprising that Mexico, where criminals are armed with high-powered weapons smuggled from the United States has some of the most restrictive gun laws in the world. Law-abiding Mexicans who want a gun for home protection either have to fight government red tape to get a legal permit or buy a gun on the black market. So, is it time for Mexico to reform its gun laws? As NPR's John Burnett reports, this is the question that one embattled community in northern Mexico has begun to ask.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Colonia LeBaron is a farming town about 130 miles southwest of El Paso in the border state of Chihuahua. It was founded by breakaway Mormons from the States who wanted to practice polygamy. Today, most residents hold dual citizenship, speak English, retain close ties to the U.S. and a few still practice plural marriage.
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BURNETT: Under a cold, starry sky, a group of the blue-eyed, broad-shouldered farmers gathered at a barbecue to josh one another and tell the story of their community.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hey Mack, get back over here. Hurry
BURNETT: The militancy of the LeBaron community began on May 5, 2009, when kidnappers seized a 16-year-old boy and demanded a million dollars ransom. Though he was released unharmed, the town folk came together and formed an anti-crime group to take a stand against the kidnapping and extortions that were rampant. The leader was Benjamin LeBaron.
JULIAN LEBARON: So, we started an organization and it represented a threat to the criminals. And on July 7, 2009, close to 20 men showed up to Benjamin's house and they terrorized the family. They wanted to terrorize people into never opposing them. And they dragged Benjamin out of his house, and Luis came to help him, they took them a couple miles down the road and shot them.
BURNETT: Julian LeBaron says the cold-blooded murders of his younger brother, Benjamin, and his brother-in-law, Luis Widmar, galvanized this community. It prompted them to take a stance that is familiar to Second Amendment advocates in the U.S. - but one that is taboo in Mexico. Jose Widmar is the brother of slain Luis.
JOSE WIDMAR: I said I think there would be less violence if there were more guns. In the sense that I could barge in here and do whatever I want knowing that this guy doesn't have a gun.
BURNETT: Today, if the gangsters returned, the LeBaron colony is locked and loaded. They have an advocate in their cousin Alex LeBaron, a 31-year-old Chihuahua state deputy with national aspirations. He's a burly, baby-faced politician who attended college in New Mexico and served in the U.S. Navy. His own father was killed in a carjacking. If Alex LeBaron makes it into the federal congress, his most passionate issue will be reforming Mexico's convoluted gun laws.
ALEX LEBARON: We're Mexican citizens 100 percent and we have the right to bear...
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LEBARON: We have the right to bear arms and we're going to keep fighting for that right as long as it takes.
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BURNETT: He and some friends have gathered at a nearby gun club to plink away at steel duck silhouettes. Joining a sport shooting club is one way to avoid the aggravation of attaining an individual permit. Though the Mexican constitution permits gun ownership, the government strictly limits that privilege as a response to the violence of the Mexican Revolution and to uprisings in the 1960s, when students looted gun stores in Mexico City.
LEBARON: In the black market it's very easy to acquire mostly American-made weapons here in our country, but through the legal process it's a very complex and expensive process.
BURNETT: A citizen who wants a permit for a weapon must apply to the Mexican military, a process that can cost upwards of $10,000. Then pay to have that permit renewed annually. The military further regulates the caliber of weapon, how many guns a person can own, how much ammunition they can buy each month, and where in the country they can take the weapon. The government abolished the last private gun store in 1995. Today, the only legal gun store in the country is in Mexico City, guarded and operated by the armed forces. Dr. Oscar Urrutia Beall is a longtime member of the Paquime Shooting Club.
DR. OSCAR URRUTIA BEALL: (Through Translator) In Mexico, the laws effectively don't allow you to purchase weapons. There are some weapons they sell in Mexico City, but the paperwork is very difficult. Here, they won't let us buy a gun, but they let us own a gun. It's an incongruity, a failed law.
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BURNETT: On the LeBaron family farm outside of town, workers pack red chiles for shipment to New Mexico. The family also grows alfalfa, pecans and cotton on irrigated fields bordered by the windswept foothills of the Sierra Madres. The LeBarons have a reputation of being well-armed and not afraid to use those weapons. One night in October of 2009, a gunfight erupted between the LeBaron brothers and a squad from the Mexican army. The LeBarons claim the soldiers came to the front gate and did not identify themselves. Fearing they were kidnappers, Alex says, they opened fire.
LEBARON: In the middle dark sometimes it's better to shoot and ask questions later.
BURNETT: One soldier was killed. One LeBaron brother and another farmer were charged with murder. But the judge ultimately dropped the charges because the evidence had been tampered with. These days, things have quieted down in Colonia LeBaron. Some folks say it's because of the soldiers garrisoned in town. The LeBarons maintain it's because the criminals know the community will fight back. And if more communities were allowed to defend themselves, says Alex LeBaron, Mexican organized crime would be on the run.
LEBARON: I think Mexico's way past that revolutionary uprising point in our history. I think we're ready to come into the 21st century and be part of this whole global process of modernization, and this is one of them - gun laws.
BURNETT: But do Mexicans want gun laws similar to those in the U.S., where buying an assault rifle can be as easy as buying a beer? To answer this question, I went first to the office of Basilio Sabata Salaices, the mayor of the municipality where Colonia LeBaron is located.
BASILIO SABATA SALAICES: (Spanish spoken)
BURNETT: Here, guns are very restricted, the mayor said. But I see in the U.S. many things happen because youth don't know how to use guns. I don't think we should make it easier to possess a weapon as in the U.S. Then I visited Beto Renteria, a prominent businessman in Nuevo Casas Grandes whose wife was kidnapped three years ago and returned after he paid a ransom.
BETO RENTERIA: (Spanish spoken) There are lots of Mexicans who've never shot a gun, he said. It could be dangerous putting a gun in the hands of an inexperienced person. We could hurt someone.
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BURNETT: Finally, alongside a rural highway southwest of Juarez, I met Fernando Saenz, the leader of a citizens' militia in Ascension. This is the town that made headlines last September when a mob beat to death two suspected kidnappers. Like many Mexicans in regions plagued by crime violence, Saenz owns an illegal, unregistered weapon - in his case, a 9 millimeter handgun.
FERNANDO SAENZ: (Foreign language spoken)
BURNETT: Look, Don Fernando said pensively, I think guns are not advisable. I think what the government should do is put honest, well-trained people in jobs to impart justice.
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BURNETT: If these three responses are any guide, the LeBaron's crusade to reform gun laws is at odds with a certain cultural ambivalence toward firearms, at least among law-abiding Mexican citizens.
Alex LeBaron is undeterred.
ALEX LEBARON: I have to stress very strongly that if the federal government, the state government or the local government cannot protect you from the cartels or any criminal groups, we should be able to protect ourselves. That's the bottom-line.
BURNETT: So, the community is openly flouting federal gun laws.
LEBARON: Yes, we have to.
BURNETT: The Mexican secretary of national defense, charged with enforcing gun laws, declined to comment for this story.
The director of a popular pro-gun website, called Mexico Armado, said there is no popular movement at the moment to liberalize the nation's gun laws. Perhaps, he added, that's because anybody who wants a weapon in Mexico - be they a good guy or a bad guy - has no problem getting one.
John Burnett, NPR News
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