LA Times Gets It Wrong on Guns AGAIN

The Los Angeles Times has never met a gun control law it didn’t like, so it is not a complete surprise that on February 28, 2011, a Times editorial alleged a connection between U.S. “gun-running” and continuing drug cartel related violence along the U.S.-Mexico border.

What may be surprising, however, considering the Times’ purported aspiration to accuracy, is that the article was flat out wrong about a fact. The article claimed, among other things, that “the source of the weapons used to kill [in violence along the U.S.-Mexico border] is easily identified: The U.S. accounts for an estimated 85% of guns seized by Mexican authorities, according to a 2009 Government Accountability Office report [GAO].” Id.

Actually, that June 2009 United States GAO Report says that “it is impossible to know how many firearms are illegally smuggled into Mexico in a given year, [but] about 87 percent of firearms seized by Mexican authorities and traced in the last 5 years originated in the United States.” GAO Report to Congressional Requesters, Firearms Trafficking Report, “U.S. Efforts to Combat Arms Trafficking to Mexico Face Planning and Coordination Challenges” (available at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d09709.pdf) (hereafter, “GAO Report”) at 15 (emphasis added)

Failing to account for the tracing factor makes the Times editorial completely wrong. And sadly, the Times is not alone. Reuters, for example, reported that “nine out of ten guns” found at Mexican crime scenes came from U.S. gun dealers. It has been reported wrongly for so long, it is now accepted as accurate.

This distinction between seized guns and guns that are both seized and “traced” makes a gigantic difference in trying to determine how many guns recovered in Mexico came from the U.S. Simply put, the U.S. does not account for 85% of guns seized by Mexican authorities. The U.S. accounts for approximately 87% of guns that Mexican authorities have both 1) seized, and 2) had successfully traced by U.S. authorities. Mexican authorities don’t submit every gun they seize for tracing, and not all guns used in crime are traceable. Typically, only guns with serial numbers and other markings can be “traced” by U.S. authorities. Tracing is possible only if the Mexican authorities submit accurate information about a firearm to U.S. authorities, and Mexican authorities do not always give U.S. authorities the serial numbers or information needed to trace a gun – even if the gun could technically be traced. And even then, Mexican authorities only submit firearms designed for the U.S. civilian market (the only kind of gun ATF is equipped to trace).

In fact, the GAO Report expressly acknowledges that “the eTrace data [used in the report] only represents data from gun trace requests submitted from seizures in Mexico and not all the guns seized.” Id. at 16. The GAO Report also indicates that “[i]n 2008, of the almost 30,000 firearms that the Mexican Attorney General’s office said were seized, only around 7,200, or approximately a quarter were submitted to ATF for tracing.” Id. (emphasis added). The GAO also notes that Mexican government officials did not submit all guns for tracing due to “bureaucratic obstacles” and “lack of a sufficient number of trained staff.” Of these 7,200 guns that were submitted for tracing, only about 4,000 could be traced by ATF. And, of these 4,000 guns, some 3,480 (or 87 percent) were shown to have come from the United States. Those 3,480 guns equal less than half of the 7,000 firearms submitted by the Mexican government to the ATF for tracing, and less than 12 percent of the total firearms seized in Mexico in 2008.

Put another way, almost 90 percent of the guns seized in Mexico in 2008 were not traced back to the U.S.

That’s not surprising. And the tracing factor is not the only reason. Obviously, rocket-propelled grenades, newly manufactured machine guns, and other heavy use military weapons being used in the Mexican drug wars are not legally available at gun shows or gun stores. Many of the seized firearms displayed by the media cannot be legally purchased in the U.S. without a special, hard to get ATF license and local chief law-enforcement officer authorization (short-barreled rifles, for example). There are lots of international black market sources for super-rich drug cartels to buy all kinds of firearms, including the much heavier armaments they covet, besides the U.S. retail market. Past wars in Latin America have created a healthy black market that the cartels can tap into. United States gun control regulations have no effect on the ability of the rich drug cartels to purchase small arms and military-grade weapons on the world-wide black market.

 In fact, as explained in English by the Latin American Herald Times, “The most fearsome weapons wielded by Mexico’s drug cartels enter the country from Central America, not the United States, according to U.S. diplomatic cables disseminated by WikiLeaks and published by La Jornada newspaper. Items such as grenades and rocket-launchers are stolen from Central American armies and smuggled into Mexico via neighboring Guatemala, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City reported to Washington.” Mexican Cartels Get Heavy Weapons from Central America, U.S. Cables Say, Latin Am. Herald Trib., Mar. 29, 2011.

There are other ways for cartels to get both small arms and larger weapons as well. In fact, the cartels put up recruiting billboards to persuade Mexican soldiers and police officers to leave their posts. Thousands have done so, with their guns and other armaments in hand. And there remains the question of intercepted U.S. arms exports, but these, when legal, are monitored by the State Department.

Misleading statistics should not be used as a basis for advancing a political agenda that infringes on 2nd Amendment rights, nor disrupting the business plans of law-abiding firearm retailers.