One of the most common topics currently being discussed in the media is the flow of weapons from the US into Mexico - specifically, the purchase of handguns and rifles in mostly southwest border states for use by Mexican DTOs. Many (especially in Mexico) believe this is a gun control problem; more to the point, a problem that might be mitigated with stricter US gun laws. There have been some articles recently published regarding the "gun show loophole," which allows unlicensed gun sellers (i.e. private gun-owning citizens) to sell guns at gun shows without having to follow the same rules as licensed dealers. I firmly believe that changing gun laws won't make much difference in the overall southbound weapons flow because most of these guns are purchased by "strawmen" who have clean backgrounds. I also believe that increasing law enforcement efforts and getting a better understanding of the overall trafficking problem would go a long way towards mitigating the southbound flow of guns. Unfortunately, the US is shooting itself in the foot (no pun intended) with a little-known piece of legislation called the Tiahrt Amendment that makes the analysis and overall understanding of this problem almost impossible.
The Tiahrt Amendment is named for its original sponsor, US Representative Todd Tiahrt (R-KS)(pictured right). The Tiahrt Amendment is a provision that members of Congress have tucked into federal spending bills that restricts cities and police from accessing and using ATF trace data from guns recovered in crimes. Trace data can be used solely in connection with a criminal investigation, and only in the jurisdication of the agency requesting the data. Trace data can NOT be used in a civil action, and is inadmissible in court for a civil action. Because trace data can only be shared with law enforcement agencies conducting a criminal investigation, that means it can NOT be shared with analysts (such as myself) who seek to discover trafficking patterns within the US and across the US-Mexico border. For example, if an analyst at DHS headquarters or a southwest border state fusion center requested trace data for guns seized in Mexico because he or she wanted to write an intelligence assessment, the ATF would not be authorized to share that data under the Tiahrt Amendment. Law enforcement agencies are prohibited from sharing the data with each other as well, since the data is restricted by jurisdiction. Even members of Congress wouldn't be able to see trace data unless they were actively involved in the prosecution of a case involving that data.
One would wonder why such an obstacle to information sharing - especially on such an important issue - would be erected and buried in a spending bill. Apparently, the National Rifle Association and other vehemently pro-gun associations very strongly support the Tiahrt Amendment because they feel it will prvent agencies like the ATF from looking up information on private gun owners who are not involved in criminal activity. Being a former law enforcement officer and pro-gun in my own fashion, I think this concern over the invasion of gun owners' privacy is ridiculous - especially at the price of preventing law enforcment officials and analysts from painting an accurate picture of the weapons trafficking problem.
So what does this all mean? While the Tiahrt Amendment is not solely to blame for the US Government's inability to stem the southbound flow of weapons, it is largely to blame for its inability to completely and accurately understand the extent of the problem because the information desperately needed by southwest border analysts is legally restricted to ATF databases. This is NOT knocking on the ATF at all; just the opposite, actually. The ATF has their hands tied by legislation it did not write or approve, and they're just following the law.Yes, the ATF has their own analysts, and they have a better grip on the details and extent of southbound weapons trafficking than any other US agency. But thanks to the Tiahrt Amendment, they can't freely share that information with anyone who asks for it. I imagine there are also considerable political and diplomatic issues surrounding trace data. The US Government has publicly acknowledged it is partly responsible for weapons ending up in the hands of Mexican DTOs. However, the widespread availability of trace data would cause a LOT of finger pointing at certain states and open up the gun law and Second Amendment can of worms.
Fortunately, there is a tiny light on the horizon. From the press reports I've seen, the Obama Administration wants to repeal the amendment. I don't know when this would happen, and exactly what changes would occur in trace data sharing. However, any increase in information sharing between the ATF and federal, state, local, and tribal agencies involved in analyzing weapons trafficking patterns would go a LONG way towards helping our governments REALLY understand just how big this problem is, and what resources to allocate to fight it.