Keeping Weapons Away from Mexican Drug Cartels

Kenneth Melson, acting director of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives, was in San Antonio, Texas, on August 12 for the signing of a new agreement with ranking Mexican counterparts to more effectively interdict gun smugglers moving weapons into the hands of Mexico's drug cartels. The pact, which is designed to allow for a far greater number of serial number traces of captured weapons long kept off limits in Mexican military vaults, is part of President Barack Obama's new push to address the problem. Controversy has erupted between Second Amendment rights advocates and gun ban advocates over exactly how many weapons captured in Mexico actually originate from U.S. firearms retailers -- and thus whether the Democratic Congress and White House might deem more sales regulation to be necessary.

Earlier this year, the president ordered hundreds of ATF agents and support staff to the border, most of them to Texas, citing tracings of thousands of seized guns in Mexico to American stores. For nearly four months, ATF agents have been projecting an unprecedented show of force among these American dealers. Among their activities, ATF agents have been inspecting retail holders of federal firearms licenses to ensure they are not knowingly selling guns to "straw purchasers," who turn around and hand them over to cartel operatives, who in turn smuggle them over for use in Mexico's high body count civil drug war.

In an exclusive interview with me, Melson discussed his agency’s supercharged efforts in Texas, the nation’s top source state for weapons recovered from cartel gunmen and later traced to U.S. firearms dealers. I have written extensively about gun and ammunition smuggling to Mexico. I have also weighed in on the numbers controversy for Pajamas Media.

To date, nearly 23,000 handguns and assault-style firearms captured from drug trafficking organizations have been traced to licensed retail firearms dealers in Texas and elsewhere. But untold thousands more captured weapons remain untraced and inaccessible in Mexican military vaults, leading to fierce political squabbling over the total numbers. Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that Mexican military officers have refused to provide serial numbers or ATF access to the vaults. But all that is about to change with the pact Melson signed recently in San Antonio alongside Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

Among the highlights of the interview with Melson is that he believes most of the untraced weapons still in Mexico's vaults will almost certainly turn out to originate not from foreign countries, as Second Amendment rights advocates insist, but from U.S. gun dealers. He also revealed that gun smugglers are countering Obama's ATF push along the border by simply moving to stores farther inland.

Also present was J. Dewey Webb, special agent in charge of the bureau’s Houston field division, who occasionally interjected.

TB: It’s my understanding that the Mexican military has been less than competent in helping with traces and also not providing access to military vaults containing seized weapons. What’s yours?

Kenneth Melson: Those issues will be resolved in the next couple of weeks when [Immigration and Customs Enforcement Secretary] John Morton and I, and a couple of other department officials and border patrol individuals, go down to Mexico to meet with the Mexican authorities on those very issues. I expect we’ll have a resolution to the access to those weapons at that time. That’s our hope.

TB: What kind of access are we talking about now?

Kenneth Melson: The access that the ATF is looking for is the ability to work with the Mexican authorities to examine the guns for the appropriate information, to take off the guns for purposes of tracing.

TB: You’d send ATF agents into these vaults?

Kenneth Melson: Yeah. If they invite us in, we’re ready to go to work with them on that. We’re working with them on that. That’s what this letter of intent is for. It is an expression of our intent to work on a set of protocols for sharing of information and sharing of access, both on the U.S. side and on the Mexican side, with respect to this evidence. On the Mexican side, for us to get access to information we can use to provide an intelligence base for us and for the Mexicans. And on the U.S. side, for purposes of making sure the cases we develop can be used in Mexico to help develop their cases against individuals in Mexico, who are not in the U.S.