The debate over U.S. gun laws and Mexican drug violence brings to mind Mark Twain’s famous quip about lies, damned lies, and statistics. In a recent editorial, the Washington Post blamed American policies for exacerbating the bloodshed, pointing out that “70 to 80 percent of the traceable guns seized in Mexico can be tracked to the United States.” The key word there is “traceable.” While it’s true that most of the traceable guns originated north of the border, those weapons represent a very small portion of total Mexican gun seizures.
According to a Government Accountability Office study based on data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), only 7,200 of the roughly 30,000 guns seized by Mexican authorities in 2008 were sent to ATF for a tracing analysis. Scott Stewart of STRATFOR has noted that just 4,000 of them were found to be traceable. Of the traceable guns, 3,480 were linked back to the United States. In other words, only 12 percent of the guns confiscated in 2008 were positively traced to the United States. In May 2009, the Associated Press reported that the Mexican military had “305,424 confiscated weapons locked in vaults.” Because those weapons were not submitted to ATF, their origin is unclear.
We should obviously take reasonable steps to block cartel members and their associates from buying guns in America, while also upholding Second Amendment rights for law-abiding citizens. Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s bewildering strategy was to let more than 2,000 weapons “walk” across the border into Mexico as part of “Operation Fast and Furious.” The Post editorial characterized this program as a “well-intentioned, misguided response to — and not the cause of — the proliferation of illegal guns in Mexico.” That is a rather generous description. The program was disastrously conceived and disastrously executed. Fast and Furious weaponry has been used to commit scores and scores of killings. In December 2010, it was used to murder a brave U.S. Border Patrol agent named Brian Terry.
What about the U.S. assault-weapons ban (AWB), which expired in 2004? Citing estimates from a senior Mexican official, the Post said that the portion of seized guns classified as “assault weapons” has grown from about one-third in 2005 to 60–65 percent today. Yet Mexican drug violence was accelerating before the AWB lapsed — in 2001, then-president Vicente Fox called for “a war without mercy” against the cartels — and President Felipe Calderón’s courageous post-2006 crackdown on organized crime has prompted the gangs (1) to fight back against the government and (2) to fight a lot more with each other.
In his 2011 STRATFOR report, Stewart made an important observation about trends in Mexico drug violence: “In recent years the cartels (especially their enforcer groups such as Los Zetas, Gente Nueva and La Linea) have been increasingly using military weaponry instead of sporting arms. A close examination of the arms seized from the enforcer groups and their training camps clearly demonstrates this trend toward military ordnance, including many weapons not readily available in the United States” (emphasis added). “Some of these seizures have included M60 machine guns and hundreds of 40 mm grenades obtained from the military arsenals of countries like Guatemala.”
Indeed, wrote Stewart,
Latin America is awash in weapons that were shipped there over the past several decades to supply the various insurgencies and counterinsurgencies in the region. When these military-grade weapons are combined with the rampant corruption in the region, they quickly find their way into the black arms market. The Mexican cartels have supply-chain contacts that help move narcotics to Mexico from South America and they are able to use this same network to obtain guns from the black market in South and Central America and then smuggle them into Mexico.
As Stewart concluded:
Even if it were somehow possible to hermetically seal the U.S.-Mexico border and shut off all the guns coming from the United States, the cartels would still be able to obtain weapons elsewhere — just as narcotics would continue to flow into the United States from other places.
No question, the United States should be doing more to help Mexico stem the rising tide of drug-related violence. But we should also be skeptical of claims that American gun laws are at the root of the problem.