AS/COA Online - New U.S. Measures Seek to Stem Arms Trafficking into Mexico

The Obama administration announced Monday new rules requiring increased reporting about semi-automatic weapons sales in Southwest border states. Firearms dealers in Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas will be required to report when making a sale, within five business days, of more than one semiautomatic rifle greater than .22 caliber and with detachable magazines. Such weapons include AK-47s U.S. Department of Justice Deputy Attorney General James Cole heralded the new rules as a tool for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) “to help confront the problem of illegal gun trafficking into Mexico and along the Southwest Border.” But the new rules could force the White House into a legal tussle with the National Rifle Association (NRA), an organization dedicated to gun ownership rights. The move also comes amid a simmering scandal over the ATF’s botched gun-tracing operation dubbed “Fast and Furious” that allowed U.S. weapons to fall into the hands of Mexican drug gangs.

Trafficking of U.S. weapons into Mexico is no new worry. In January 2007, when the administration of Mexican President Felipe Calderón initiated its offensive against drug-trafficking organizations, The Arizona Republic reported on the flood of combat rifles “pouring into Mexico” since the end of the U.S. assault-weapon ban in 2004. A 2009 Congressional Research Service report noted that U.S. President Barack Obama had acknowledged that 90 percent of illicit weapons captured in Mexico could be traced back to the United States.  In June, while delivering a speech in California, Calderón said that at least 85 percent of 100,000 weapons captured by Mexican authorities over the past four years were sold in the United States, adding: “I charge the North American weapons industry with thousands of deaths taking place in Mexico.”  Mexico’s drug war has claimed as many as 40,000 lives in the past five years.

With an eye to such grim statistics, Washington’s new reporting regulations come as welcome news for observers calling for greater oversight of arms sales near the border. Mexico’s Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan congratulated the Obama administration via Twitter on Monday for approving the reporting measures. U.S. Congressman Elijah Cummings (D-MD) called the rules “a crucial tool to identify and disrupt Mexican drug cartels.” The ATF, which first proposed the regulations in December, expects the measures will generate 18,000 reports each year, according to the Associated Press. The decision will affect roughly 7,000 dealers in Southwest border states, the U.S. region that accounts for the top U.S. arms dealers of guns seized in Mexico. A July 8 letter to Obama from the 600-strong association Mayors Against Illegal Guns noted that similar guidelines already in place for reporting on handgun sales led to 300 criminal investigations in connection with 25,000 illegal guns in 2008.

The new rules could face a challenge, though. Chris Cox, head of the NRA’s lobbying arm, promised to “file suit as soon as the ATF sends the first demand letters.” also accused the Oval Office of creating “a distraction away from the gross incompetence that we’ve seen in this Fast and Furious scandal.” Through Operation Fast and Furious, which ran from 2009 until it was uncovered earlier this year, the ATF agents let assault rifles purchased in Arizona “walk” in the hopes of uncovering them at crime scenes to capture Mexican cartel leaders. A report prepared by GOP congressmen found that the operation let hundreds and possibly thousands of rifles to be trafficked into Mexico. The lost weapons were linked to the murder of a U.S. Border Patrol Agent in Arizona as well as the slaying of a Mexican lawyer in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico. The Los Angeles Times reports that the scandal took a new twist over the past week when ATF chief Kenneth Melson suggested, in congressional testimony, that some Mexican cartel suspects could be operating as paid U.S. informants for Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Drug Enforcement Agency.

Learn more

  • U.S. Department of Justice release regarding new reporting rules for certain types of semi-automatic rifles.
  • NRA Institute for Legislative Action’s statement on the new reporting regulations.
  • U.S. Congress Joint Staff report on Operation Fast and Furious, prepared for Representative Darell Issa (R-CA) of the House Committee on Oversight and Senator Charles E. Grassley (R-IA) of the Government Reform and the Senate Committee on the Judiciary.