Gun Trafficking to Mexico and the ATF

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Seized weapons are displayed to the media by the Mexican Navy in Mexico City (Jorge Lopez/Courtesy Reuters).

Seized weapons are displayed to the media by the Mexican Navy in Mexico City (Jorge Lopez/Courtesy Reuters).

Reformers say never to waste a crisis — or a scandal. They certainly have found one with the ATF’s Fast and Furious program, in which bureau officials allowed hundreds of firearms to “walk” across the border, straight into the hands of Mexican drug traffickers. Designed to track complex cartel networks and increase border security, the operation relied on surveillance to document so-called straw buyers’ purchase and sale of arms to Mexican drug traffickers, in hopes that the dealings would lead them to important criminal targets. Those in charge, however, lost track of the guns. When two Fast and Furious military-style firearms were found at the scene Border Patrol agent Brian Terry’s murder last year, ATF employees broke rank and began to speak out on the program’s failings. Since the initial whistle-blowing in March of 2011, the revelations of high-level ATF and justice officials involvement just keep expanding.

Fast and Furious illuminates the deep problems within ATF. In a recent report based on ATF data, Democrats highlight that  roughly 70 percent of all illegal guns found in Mexico come from the U.S., and attribute this to the weak tools ATF holds. They argue that to address the problem, the U.S. needs to better enforce the ban on imports of military-style weapons and ratify the CIFTA treaty, which would establish a standard for the control of  illicit manufacturing and trafficking of firearms.

Republicans, led by Darrel Issa (R-Vista) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa)are more interested in holding top justice officials accountable for their involvement in Fast and Furious. Issa has all but ruled out any discussion of gun laws during the investigation into the scandal, interrupting a witness’s testimony in a hearing last week to remind him,“we’re not here to talk about proposed gun legislation.”

The Obama administration, trying to take initial steps to address the issue, recently issued new regulations requiring gun dealers to notify the ATF when a customer buys more than one gun in a short period of time, in an effort to detect so-called ‘straw buyers’ who purchase firearms on behalf of Mexican drug traffickers.

What else can and should be done? In a report for the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center and the University of San Diego, Colby Goodman and Michel Marizco recommend that states criminalize straw purchasing and urge ATF to boost its staff so the bureau can increase its inspections of gun stores. At current staffing levels, it would take the ATF a minimum of three years to inspect every licensed firearms dealer in the country. Michael Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns group wants to close the “terror-gap” in gun legislation, under which more than 1300 known terror suspects purchased firearms in the U.S. since 2004. The coalition of mayors also advocates the repeal of the Tiahrt amendments, which prevent the release of trace data to state and federal officials. One effect of this measure is to force the U.S. to rely on data from the Mexican government about the status of Fast and Furious guns. A repeal would to improve law enforcement’s ability to track criminals armed with illegal guns.

Studies of California’s regulation show that steps like these matter – of the thousands of guns heading to Mexico and into cartel hands, only an estimated 3% were purchased in California. Whats more, since it tightened restrictions on the sale of firearms in the early 1990s, its rate of firearm-related deaths has plummeted more than 45%, dwarfing the 16.5% average drop across the rest of the United States.

Average U.S. citizens are increasingly inclined to regulate gun sales, as a recent poll shows that the overwhelming majority of those surveyed, including gun owners, support more probative background checks for buyers. But to make a real move means taking on the NRA in a Presidential election year. This may mean, unfortunately, that this scandal will go to waste, and U.S. guns will keep fueling Mexican cartels’ fire.

Published in conjunction with Latin America’s Moment at the Council on Foreign Relations.