A few days ago, a sure-to-be controversial report was released, titled "Halting U.S. Firearms Trafficking to Mexico." It was sponsored and put together by three US senators - Dianne Feinstein, Charles Schumer, and Sheldon Whitehouse - for the US Senate Caucus on International Narcotics control.
Feel free to read the entire report HERE. What I'm hoping to do with this blog post is to summarize the key points, and try to suss some meaning out of all the statistics and recommendations:
Analysis: This is a relatively lengthy and detailed report (although I've seen MUCH longer on this issue). But the section of the report that will garner the most attention is this one: Based on updated ATF tracing data, of the 29,284 firearms seized and successfully traced in Mexico in 2009 and 2010, 20,504 came from a US source (meaning a gun shop, gun show, or private sale). That comes to 70 percent, if you don't want to go searching for the calculator in the junk drawer. Now, 69 percent of those firearms were sold in either California, Arizona, or Texas.
There were other things that the three senators discovered that they weren't thrilled with. First, they noted that under federal law, background checks are not required for sales by unlicensed sellers at US gun shows. Second, they said military-style weapons are readily available for civilian purchase in the US: "Many of these are imported from former Eastern bloc countries and then can be bought by straw purchasers and transported to Mexico. In addition, some importers bring rifle parts into the United States and reassemble them into military-style firearms using a small number of domestically manufactured components." There were a few other things noted, but many of them were legislative in nature and not as controversy-stimulating as these three things.
Tackling the first one, most of my readers know (and avidly take one side or the other) that it's been a constant battle between the US government and the NRA and other pro-gun groups to determine where most of the guns in Mexico come from. The first major salvos were fired after the infamous "90 percent" figure came out. That refers to reports by the ATF and Government Accountability Office that roughly 90 percent (more like 87 percent) of firearms seized in Mexico and successfully traced to a point of sale came back to US origins.
The US government and a considerable number of mainstream media outlets used that figure as a springboard for making the US [even more] complicit in Mexico's drug war, and launching a rash of new initiatives for slowing down the southbound flow. Pro-gun groups like the NRA and conservative media outlets blasted the government statistics, claiming they were overblown to support an agenda for restricting firearms ownership and stepping all over the Second Amendment. Those groups also believe that Mexican TCOs use and obtain more military-grade weapons than US-origin rifles and handguns from places like Central America, Asia, and former Eastern bloc countries.
The crux of the problem is that no one knows, with any real degree of certainty, where most of the firearms in Mexico are coming from because 100 percent of them are not seized, and therefore 100 percent of them are not traced. In fact, it's impossible to know exactly how many rifles, handguns, grenades, and RPGs are in Mexico right now and being used by the TCOs, so the 29,284 that were seized in 2009 and 2010 could be most of them or just a drop in the bucket; I'm putting my money on the latter. Furthermore, it's impossible to know what proportion of TCO firepower consists of firearms readily available in the US, like rifles and handguns, and what proportion consists of military-grade arms, like grenades and RPGs, that are not.
That brings us to the recommendations that the three senators make. Most of them do involve increasing gun law restrictions: Reinstating the assault weapons ban, requiring ALL gun sellers at shows to run background checks, requiring the reporting of multiple long guns, and some others. This comes as no surprise, as all three senators are Democrats, and the Democratic Party generally favors gun restrictions. I'm sure if this investigation and subsequent report had been conceived by three pro-gun Republicans, it would have read very differently, so keep that in mind.
So, if fully implemented tomorrow (hypothetically speaking), would any of the recommendations made by the three senators have an impact on the drug war and associated violence? In my opinion, probably not. And I say that only because I don't believe anyone has a true grasp of the weapons trafficking situation across the US-Mexico border. Not because of bias or incompetence, but because of the very nature of the problem. Not many people are inspecting southbound vehicles into Mexico, where most US-origin guns are being transported. It's very difficult to detect firearms transactions between Central American dealers and TCO purchasers. Shipments of weapons come into Mexican ports, where they're rarely searched. Firearms either seized or used by Mexican soldiers and police often wind up in TCO hands, and that's not tracked.
Also, straw purchasers who work for TCOs are using our gun laws - and loopholes - against us. The assault weapons ban only covers a few of the firearms most used and coveted by TCOs. More rigorous background checks won't accomplish much because straw purchasers are selected for use by TCOs for their squeaky clean records. I do like the requirement to report sales of multiple long guns because (a) that's already being required for multiple pistol sales, and (b) I do believe that's a good indicator of a suspicious purchase. I know several people will have an angry response to this, but I just don't get why anyone without bad intentions would want to buy eight AR-15s for personal use and sporting purposes.
To wrap up, we know that a good number of firearms being used by TCOs in Mexico come from US sources. I'm not going to go into Operation "Gunwalker" in this post because that accounted for only 1,795 weapons, and we're talking about tens of thousands here. We also know that TCOs are getting a good amount of military hardware from other-than-U sources. However, no one - not the US government, not the Mexican government, and not the NRA - knows what proportion of each is being used by the TCOs, and what percentage of each comes from where.
I don't believe that additional gun legislation is going to solve any problems related to southbound weapons trafficking, although I'm sure it would make some politicians happy to feel like they're trying to do something about it. There is no easy answer to the problem, especially since the TCO need for guns is ultimately derived from US demand for drugs, and ending that is impossible. The best we can hope for is a much-improved understanding of the nature of weapons trafficking to Mexico, and better intelligence-driven investigations and operations.