Gun-Running in Mexico: Hiding in Plain Sight

It turns out that America's gun lovers are not completely paranoid. Second Amendment advocates have been taking aim these last weeks at media reports stating that guns smuggled from the U.S. are being used to arm Mexico's drug cartel gangsters. These gun advocates have tried to discredit the conventional wisdom that the cartels are using these firearms to murder thousands of our southern neighbors. In attacking at this choke point, the gun advocates hope to erode the political footing of those who would like President Obama and the Democrats to enact gun control legislation. Sure enough, just as gun lovers feared, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and several other groups are now exploiting Mexico's gun smuggling problem in an effort to push for an assault rifle ban.

But these Second Amendment advocates are firing at a phantom target. Their attacks consist mainly of a frontal assault on the only available government statistics that can point to where Mexico's guns originate: the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) traces of serial numbers on weapons captured from the cartels. According to ATF data, at least 90 percent of the guns submitted for tracing originated from American retailers. This number amounts to about 23,843 guns between 2005 and 2008. That's a fraction of the total Mexico claims to have seized in the same time period. (The Mexicans have provided conflicting totals).

Here, Second Amendment advocates take a mighty leap. They assert that the only possible conclusion is that the untraced guns are coming from  another country. And as proof, they point to some of the seized military weapons that can't be bought in the U.S. Their thinking is as follows: Conspiratorial gun banners and their political and media bedfellows (myself evidently included), keep parroting the inflammatory "90 percent" propaganda because it serves a liberal political crusade to impose restrictions on gun and ammo sales. If policymakers can be made to believe all those untraced guns in Mexico are military weapons from another country, the argument for banning guns is reduced to a shoulder shrug.

However, a cavalcade of consistent anecdotal evidence such as the continuing weapons interdictions at the border, federal prosecutions, and testimony from agents with decades of experience and people involved in the trade, weighs heavily in favor of the official U.S./Mexican government hypothesis that many of the rest of the untraced weapons in Mexico's vaults also come from U.S. guns stores.  One of those agents is J. Dewey Webb, the ranking  agent in charge of the Houston ATF field office, which covers much of the Texas border. I asked Webb where he thought the untraced guns were coming from. Without hesitation, he answered: "The United States. I tell you why I say that; I've been doing this for 33 years." Webb said that in 1991 he produced a study detailing where  Mexico's seized guns originate, using access to Mexican archives of gun seizures that he personally traced and other previous ATF studies where predecessors did traces dating back to 1971. Almost all the guns came from U.S. sources. "To assume that just because it didn't trace that it didn't come from the U.S. is ridiculous," Webb said. "I've been doing this a long time. The U.S. is the number one supplier all the way back to 1968," the year Mexico banned most private gun ownership.