U.S. Guns Fueling Mexican Drug Violence

June 22, 2009 | Last updated: July 31, 2020

U.S. Border Patrol agent Gabriel Pacheco walks back to his vehicle along the border fence with its concertino wire topping it Monday Nov. 17, 2008 in San Diego. The government is planning to add concertino wire to additional fenced areas.The Border Patrol is completing installation of razor-sharp wires atop a 5-mile stretch of fence, a move that authorities credit for a sharp drop in attacks on agents by rock-, bottle- and brick-wielding assailants from Mexico. Critics say the prison-style fence is a menacing eyesore.  (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi) (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)

The absence of required background checks for private firearm sales, like those made at gun shows, have helped fuel the steady flow of U.S. firearms to Mexico, where thousands of trafficked weapons are ending up in the hands of violent drug cartels, U.S. government investigators revealed last week.

The news has renewed the call among gun-control advocates and some Democratic lawmakers to tighten the nation’s firearms laws to make it more difficult for criminals to buy and smuggle weapons. But faced with opposition from the powerful gun lobby and its congressional supporters, such proposals aren’t likely to get far this year.

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Not, as a new government report emphasizes, that there isn’t good reason for lawmakers to take a closer look at current anti-trafficking measures. More than 20,000 firearms confiscated by Mexican authorities and traced by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in the past five years originated in the United States, according to a report released Thursday by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. Those guns, representing 87 percent of all the ATF-traced weapons seized in Mexico over that span, are trafficked primarily to arm the increasingly violent wave of Mexican drug runners, GAO reported, citing statements from the ATF.

A significant but unknown number of those firearms, researchers found, are likely purchased from gun shows and other private sales, where unlicensed dealers are permitted to sell weapons without performing background checks on prospective buyers. Such checks, which are required of licensed dealers, are designed to prevent sales to those legally ineligible to own guns, including felons, illegal immigrants and the severely mentally ill.

“[A]s a result,” GAO reported, “many firearms trafficked to Mexico may be purchased through these types of transactions by individuals who may want to avoid background checks and records of their firearms purchases.”

The GAO’s findings provide a big boost to Democratic lawmakers pushing legislation to close the so-called gun-show loophole. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is a chief sponsor of such a bill. In an email, she said the loophole creates a situation in which “anybody can buy any number of weapons at a gun show and smuggle them south of the U.S. border.”

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Western Hemisphere Subcommittee who commissioned the investigation, also weighed in, professing “hope that this GAO report lends urgency to Congress taking up this legislation.”

There’s evidence that the gun-smuggling issue is one demanding precisely that. Jess Ford, GAO’s director of trade and international affairs, told House lawmakers Friday that many of the U.S.-originated guns are powerful, AK- and AR-15-style semiautomatic rifles. And the firepower is taking its toll. Between 2007 and 2008, drug-related killings in Mexico jumped from roughly 2,700 to more than 6,200.

“Available evidence indicates a large proportion of the firearms fueling Mexican drug violence originated in the United States,” Ford told members of the Western Hemisphere subpanel, “including a growing number of increasingly lethal weapons.”

But Feinstein, Engel and other gun-reform supporters might not want to hold their breath for change anytime soon. Legislation to close the gun-show loophole has been introduced as long ago as 1999, following the shooting deaths of 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School near Denver. In the wake of that tragedy, the Senate was able to pass the bill, but it was killed during subsequent negotiations with the House.

The reason is no mystery. The gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association, is among the strongest forces in Washington, doling out millions of dollars in political donations each year and maintaining the constant, if unspoken, threat to attack those lawmakers so bold as to buck the group’s legislative wishes. The NRA went after Obama on the campaign trail last year, for example, dedicating $15 million to portray the Democrat as a threat to Second Amendment Rights. A similar campaign against Al Gore eight years earlier is often credited as a central reason the former Tennessee senator didn’t win his home state in that election.

NRA’s political action committee spent roughly $15.6 million on campaign activities in the 2008 election cycle alone, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The results are tangible. Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), a member of the Foreign Affairs subpanel, was quick to blast the GAO report Friday, pointing out that the 87-percent figure represents only those guns that were traced, not all that were seized.

“I don’t know that the report itself is something we should put a lot of value in,” Mack said.

The skepticism is merited in at least one regard: The capacity of the Mexican authorities to process all of their gun seizures leaves plenty of room for improvement. In 2008 only about 25 percent of the crime guns confiscated by Mexican authorities were sent to ATF for tracing, GAO reported. Still, in a phone interview Friday, Ford said there’s nothing to indicate that U.S.-sourced guns couldn’t constitute a significant portion of the 75 percent left unexamined, but “we don’t know because they weren’t traced.”

It’s not only Republicans who are standing behind the NRA to oppose any gun reforms. Earlier this year, when U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder suggested publicly that the expired assault weapons ban should be reinstated, 65 House Democrats wrote a scathing letter to the White House condemning the proposal.

The NRA did not respond to a call for comment, but the group’s influence has been evidenced already several times this year. Indeed, when Senate Democrats in February passed legislation granting the District of Columbia a voting representative in Congress, they couldn’t prevent Republicans from first attaching language scrapping most of the district’s strict gun-control laws. Recognizing that the bill will pass if it hits the House floor, Democratic leaders in the lower chamber have refused to consider the proposal. In the meantime, of course, Washington residents continue to lack a voting member of Congress.

In another controversial episode, Republicans last month successfully altered a credit card reform bill by adding an amendment eliminating the decades-old prohibition on loaded weapons in the country’s national parks. Rather than let the gun provision be the poison pill that killed the consumer-friendly credit card reforms, Democrats passed the entire package, with President Obama signing the measure into law last month.

There are other obstacles. Because unlicensed firearm sales at gun shows and elsewhere go undocumented, there’s no good way for ATF to determine exactly how many of the U.S.-originated guns seized in Mexican stings were smuggled following a private sale.

“Unlicensed sales, by definition, have no records attached to them,” said Doug Pennington, spokesman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “So there’s no way to know.”

An absence of publicly available data on crime-gun patterns is another factor complicating efforts to gauge the frequency with which criminals exploit the gun-show loophole to buy weapons. At one time, ATF published public reports analyzing gun trafficking trends, including a breakdown of the sources of illegal firearms. Many experts, including the National Academy of Sciences, say the data offered a useful guide to congressional lawmakers and other policymakers as they fought to keep guns away from criminals. But ATF hasn’t produced such a report since 2000, citing a five-year-old law — known as the Tiarht amendment, after its sponsor Rep. Todd Tiarht (R-Kan.) — which prohibits the ATF from sharing crime-gun trace data with the public.

“It was the easiest way to point out to the public: This is how the illegal gun market works,” said Pennington of the Brady Campaign.

It’s unclear why ATF didn’t issue updates to its 2000 report in the years before the Tiarht rules took hold, but those restrictions were relaxed in 2008, allowing specifically for ATF to issue aggregate statistical data. According to GAO, ATF officials are “considering” an update to the 2000 report.

On the campaign trail, Obama vowed to eliminate the Tiahrt amendment. His proposed 2010 budget, however, doesn’t go that far, only proposing to allow ATF to share its gun-tracing data more broadly with federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.

Meanwhile, gun-policy reformers are hoping the revelation that 20,000 guns smuggled from the United States into Mexico in recent years have turned up in criminal investigations south of the border will begin turning more heads on Capitol Hill.

“That’s a huge problem we’re not even trying to solve,” Pennington said. “Not even thinking about it.”