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ATF encouraging gun smugglers, with deadly consequences, CBS reports

Image has not been found. URL: http://images.americanindependent.com/gun_thumb.jpgLast week, The American Independent reported on the so-called “gun show loophole” that permits private gun sales without a background check in most states. Gun rights groups downplay the use of privately-sold guns in crime, but there is abundant evidence that the gun show loophole contributes to violence near and across the Mexican border.

Because there is such a wealth of guns seized from drug cartels in Mexico and because the vast majority of them are tampered with as to make their origins unclear, statistics on the percentage of legally-sold American guns that end up in the hands of drug cartels are notoriously unwieldy. Figures range from a still-significant 12 percent to as high as 87 percent, though a percentage quite that high is unlikely, given the growing trend among cartels of using automatic and other military-grade weapons, which are illegal to sell in the U.S. (the discrepancy has arisen because the vast majority of seized weapons are never traced at all). Even those statistics may not tell us much about the actual presence of guns in Mexico, because they’re based on the number of guns seized by law enforcement in Mexico. There’s no telling how many more guns are still on the street, nor where they may have come from.

But a confluence of recent stories from the border region show that there may be bigger issues that need attention than closing gun show loopholes. A CBS News investigation that came out in late February exposed a shocking practice within the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). The story has received little notice except in gun enthusiast circles, who have seized upon it as a sign that ATF is corrupt and that tightening gun ownership restrictions would be pointless.

The CBS story alleges that there is an ongoing practice in the ATF of letting guns “walk”: ignoring and even encouraging licensed gun dealers who sell large quantities of guns to known gunrunners. While the ATF has refused to comment on the story, six former agents and executives who spoke anonymously to CBS said that “Project Gunrunner” agents, who were deployed specifically to stop American guns from being smuggled into Mexico, actually told wary gun dealers to continue selling to questionable buyers. Why? CBS’s sources say that the ATF sent the guns walking so that they could attempt to track them to their destinations and make bigger busts. In practice, however, the guns have proved tremendously difficult to track, and that fact has had fatal consequences for at least one ATF agent.

Agent Brian Terry was patrolling a known smuggling route near the border in Arizona on December 14, 2010, when gunrunners fired on him. He didn’t survive. Two assault rifles found at the scene were traced to a legal purchase by one Jaime Avila, who is now among 20 people indicted for fraud and conspiracy (PDF) by the state of Arizona. Avila and the other 19 named in the indictment are accused of being “straw purchasers,” or middlemen who use their clean criminal records to legally buy guns and then bring them to smuggling rings. Avila and the rest were known to ATF but allowed to proceed with their purchases — 575 in all — under Project Gunrunner.

That name — Jamie Avila — serves as a chilling but wholly coincidental reminder of a very similar, more recent story out of Mexico. On February 15, two Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, Jaime Zapata and Victor Avila, were attacked by gunmen in the state of San Luis Potosí. Avila is recovering from his wounds in Texas; Zapata was no so lucky. Following Zapata’s death, an investigation resulted in several arrests, including that of Sergio Antonio Mora, a higher-up in the notorious Los Zetas drug cartel. Three of the other arrests were made in the U.S. Three men arrested in a Dallas suburb have been connected to the murder, but they weren’t gunmen. Like those in the Arizona ring, they are considered straw purchasers in a cartel-connected gunrunning ring. A gun left at the scene of Zapata’s murder was, like so many others involved in cartel violence, traced back to the U.S. It is not known if the gun is among those allowed to “walk” by ATF agents.

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