How American Guns Proliferate in Mexico and Fuel Drug Violence

Law enforcement is failing to prevent American guns from fueling the war on our southern border. Maybe it's time to consider limiting the guns themselves


Rifles confiscated in crimes, some that have been smuggled into Mexico, are stored at a local ATF office / Reuters

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) has come under fire for a controversial anti-gun trafficking operation known as "Fast and Furious." On June 14, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa and Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Senator Chuck Grassley released a report detailing how the ATF allowed straw purchasers to acquire up to 2,000 guns on behalf of Mexican drug cartels in 2009 and 2010. ATF leadership argued that by waiting for the guns to appear at crime scenes in Mexico, the operation would allow the agency to "connect the dots" and bring down higher-ups in the cartels' structures. In other words, they chose not to arrest small-scale gun runners in the hopes that letting them go would lead them to bigger fish. However, only 20 straw purchasers have been indicted thus far, many of whom had already been under suspicion. Meanwhile, two of these guns turned up at the fatal 2009 shooting of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry. Not only was Fast and Furious ineffective, the report concludes -- its failure was deadly.

The ATF's apparent disregard for the second and third order effects of this operation are troubling. But Fast and Furious points to a larger problem: the role of American firearms in Mexico's drug war and the abdication of American responsibility for them. A Congressional report released June 9 by Democratic Senators Dianne Feinstein, Charles Schumer, and Sheldon Whitehouse concluded that American weapons are fueling drug violence in Mexico, and that U.S. policymakers have not responded adequately. While there are legitimate questions about what percentage of drug cartels' guns came from American federal firearms licensees, over 20,000 firearms found at Mexican crime scenes in 2009 and 2010 were proven to have come from the U.S. This, of course, does not include the unknowable number of U.S.-sourced weapons still in the hands of drug cartels.

These are not insignificant statistics, but there's also nothing new to this story. Law enforcement has faced an uphill battle ever since the U.S. promised, in 2007, to clamp down on arms trafficking to Mexico. In 2009, the ATF brought arms trafficker George Iknadosian to trial on charges of knowingly supplying the Sinaloa cartel with firearms; the judge threw the case out, concluding that the evidence was insufficient to convict him. The Fast and Furious operation was an attempt to use scarce resources in a new way, but this operation underscores the ATF's inability to interdict arms traffic and suggests that the ATF continues to be understaffed, underfunded, and poorly managed while Congress looks the other way.

Lenient U.S. gun laws aren't helping. The Federal Assault Weapons Ban, which had blocked certain types of semi-automatic weapons from commercial sale, expired in 2004. Today, while multiple handgun purchases must be reported within 48 hours, American citizens can purchase multiple military-style rifles at a time without the sale being reported. Nor are there limits on how many firearms can be purchased in a given time period. Law enforcement has no way to track an individual's acquisitions and is instead reliant on gun shops -- which have a clear vested interest selling guns -- to report suspicious purchases. While the dealers involved in Fast and Furious were vocal about their concerns, law enforcement shouldn't be reliant on individual dealers putting ethics above short-term business interests, assuming dealers can identify possible straw purchasers in the first place.

A new, better-designed assault weapon ban, while neither a perfect nor a complete solution, may be the best hope for curtailing the illegal gun trade to Mexico. Two recent surveys, though not conclusive, suggest that California's relatively strict laws -- which ban rifles with military-style characteristics, .50-caliber sniper rifles, and high-capacity ammunition magazines -- have made that state a less appealing purchase point for drug traffickers, though it does remain a transport corridor. A 10-day waiting period and mandatory background checks for all gun purchases have also driven some gun sellers away from California, as happened with Iknadosian. Unfortunately, given the laxer laws in surrounding states, they can simply set up shop elsewhere.

Republican Congressman Issa has been adamant about keeping debates about gun laws outside the Fast and Furious hearings, a nod to his party's strong association with gun rights groups. Oversight Ranking Member Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Democrat, says he intends to hold a minority day of hearings to discuss the role of gun laws, and has recently released a report that recommends increasing penalties for straw purchasers, enacting a dedicated firearms trafficking statute, and requiring multiple long gun sales to be reported to the ATF. Democratic Senators Feinstein, Schumer, and Whitehouse have also expressed interest in renewing the Assault Weapons Ban. However, Congress as a whole has historically been reluctant to face either the NRA or the firearms industry, which relies on military-style weapons for its only source of growth.

It's true that such restrictions would reduce the availability of guns for above-board purchasers, people who did nothing wrong. But should that really be a higher priority than the interdiction of weapons to criminals? Gun-rights groups warn that such restrictions, no matter how many lives they may save, could lead us down a slippery slope toward a disarmed American society. But the strength of the NRA and the unwillingness of Congress to provoke their wrath make it extremely unlikely that, as these groups warn, all assault weapons could be criminalized and seized.

When it comes to guns, there's more at stake than just gun rights. Redesigning our regulations of assault weapons could allow the U.S. an opportunity to rethink a range of issues and create some coherence. Why is it, for example, that multiple handguns sales are reported to the ATF, while multiple long gun sales are not? In testimony before the Oversight Committee, Special Agent Peter Forcelli, the senior ATF group supervisor in the Phoenix Field Division, drew the parallel to purchases of Sudafed, which are monitored because Sudafed is used to make methamphetamine. "Not everybody who buys more than one gun is a criminal," said Forcelli, "but it would give us an indicator that, hey, why is this person buying seven AKs? Maybe that's somebody we want to speak to."

A broader conversation about arms control in America could actually benefit American firearms enthusiasts. For example, currently, at least ten key parts of imported rifles must be American-made in order to escape the "sporting purposes" test, an odd law initially enacted to keep cheap Chinese-made AK-47s out of circulation. Instead, importers bring stripped-down weapons into the country, add American-made parts, and make other minor modifications. For this, American gun owners pay a premium and must then be careful not to swap those parts out for foreign-made parts. By aligning firearms import laws with domestic gun laws, there would be fewer hoops to jump through.

There is a real human cost to the government's choice to allow purchases of unlimited assault weapons. While the individual right to own firearms has been settled by the Supreme Court, there is little guidance on the type of weapons the government must allow the individual to keep or how often the individual may purchase them. Given the high death tolls and the lives shattered, the desires of a few legitimate enthusiasts to acquire arsenals of AR-15s and of firearms manufacturers and dealers to protect their business interests do not outweigh the fact that a number of purchasers of these weapons are criminals and terrorists. There's little that the U.S. can easily do about the guns already in circulation; stemming the future tide is far more practical. Unfortunately, the political will is lacking, and while Fast and Furious provides an excellent backdrop against to act, the start of campaign season suggests this will be a crisis wasted.

The U.S. is fueling a war on its own border through its unwillingness to consider reasonable gun control. Our short-term desire for access to arms is coming at long-term expenses to stability and security. As long as drug cartels are able to acquire military-style weapons cheaply and easily in the United States, the ATF's efforts to prevent gun trafficking and the Mexican army's efforts to capture firearms will have little real impact. Without a concerted effort to curtail the flow of guns to Mexico, American firearms will continue to turn up next to bodies on both sides of the border.