The myth that legal guns sales in the United States are responsible for Mexican drug cartel violence took another serious blow last week when an ATF official testified in Congress that only eight percent of weapons recovered in Mexico came through licensed U.S. gun dealers.
This figure is far lower than the 90 percent claim made previously as an appeal to reinstate ineffective gun laws that expired in 2004. The claim — still active among the less informed or serially dishonest — officially became myth during congressional testimony last week when Bill McMahon, deputy assistant director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, revealed the eight percent figure, how it was calculated, and where the 90 percent myth arose from.
Of the 100,000 weapons recovered by Mexican authorities, only 18,000 were determined to have been manufactured, sold, or imported from the United States, and of those 18,000, just 7,900 came from sales by licensed gun dealers.
Both Mexican President Felipe Calderón and American President Barack Obama have tried to claim that 90 percent of the firearms used by Mexican drug cartels originate in the United States. These claims have been echoed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Attorney General Eric Holder and his assistants, liberal members of both houses of Congress, and a reliably anti-gun media. They hoped to use the shocking statistic to lay the groundwork for a reinstatement of the 1994 “assault weapons” ban that expired in 2004.
The “assault weapons” ban outlawed 19 firearms by name, but otherwise merely banned certain cosmetic features. The practical effect of the ban was no ban at all; the exact same firearms — minus the banned cosmetic features — were back on dealer shelves the very next day with no decrease in lethality, accuracy, capacity, or rate of fire.
Like most gun laws, the “assault weapon” ban had negligible impact on crime. The only measurable practical effect was that one provision of the ban — a 10-round limit on the magazine capacity of newly manufactured magazines — encouraged the development of the smallest guns possible that could carry ten rounds of ammunition. The resulting subcompact class of centerfire semi-automatic handguns is a direct if accidental result of the ban that the bill co-author, then Senator Joe Biden, certainly didn’t intend.
But anti-gun politicians rarely miss a chance to call for more control even if the laws are proven failures, and the administration found the 90 percent claim to be a useful cudgel. It was also a complete, utter, and demonstrable lie.
William La Jeunesse and Maxim Lott of Fox News were among the first to puncture the myth. They revealed that the 90 percent figure came from the number of guns that the Mexican authorities turned over to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. Ninety percent of the firearms turned over to the ATF were determined to be from the United States.
But only a fraction of the guns recovered by the Mexican authorities were turned over to the ATF, because most of the weapons recovered had markings that clearly identified their origins in other countries. Of nearly 100,000 weapons recovered from the cartels, only 20 percent had been turned over to the U.S. for identification, and a total of 18,000 were determined to have been manufactured, sold, or imported from the United States.
Instead of 90 percent, the actual number of weapons recovered in Mexico that came from the U.S. was just 18 percent.
As a result of this inconvenient truth, the myth being pushed by the Obama administration and championed by anti-gun elements of the media quietly went away.
Eight percent is a far cry from the 90 percent that the administration had been wanting to claim, and considering that there are more than 6,600 licensed dealers in the border region, it means (statistically speaking) just over one gun per licensed dealer has found it’s way across the border.
McMahon’s testimony does not state how these guns from licensed dealers made their way across the border, but there are only really two options.
There have been arrests of a handful of licensed dealers for knowingly selling dozens of firearms to cartel frontmen. While there are certainly others dealing to cartel members, that cannot account for the majority of weapons sold. The relatively low number of dealer arrests and alleged activity seem to indicate that illegal strawman purchases account for most of the acquisitions. People with no criminal record who can pass the FBI’s instant background check system (NICS) are recruited to buy firearms from dealers, and then turn the firearms over to individuals procuring weapons for the cartels. Even then, guns purchased via licensed dealers only account for 44 percent of the total.
The majority of American weapons that find their way into the hands of Mexican drug cartels come from stolen weapons, or firearms that were obtained in person-to-person sales without a licensed gun dealer being involved. These person-to-person sales are often erroneously cited as evidence of a “gun show loophole” in the media, because person-to-person sales frequently take place at these venues (licensed dealers must perform NICS background checks, whether they are at a gun show or they are at their storefront location). The fact of the matter, however, is that these sales can legally take place nearly anywhere guns are not specifically banned.
Don’t expect the Obama administration, the gun control groups he used to finance as a director of the anti-gun Joyce Foundation, or the media to make too much of Deputy Assistant Director McMahon’s debunking of their talking point.
Like so much of the left-wing agenda, gun control isn’t about honesty.