About a month ago, we questioned the accuracy of a statistic that has been brought up in discussions and speeches about the drug war violence in Mexico: that anywhere from 80 percent to 95 percent (apparently one can feel free to choose any number) of the firearms recovered from Mexican crime scenes — often related to the drug war — have come from the United States. It goes to the top levels of our government. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reported it to reporters on her recent trip to Mexico.
The story, originating from the Mexican government, says that minions of drug lords cross the border and find willing U.S. citizens to drive over to the local sporting goods store, firearms shop or gun show and pick up a few rifles and pistols to smuggle into Mexico. News stories and government press releases are often accompanied by photos of an armed soldier standing watch over a table or room full of firearms, usually including a light machine gun or two, and a few rocket-propelled grenades and their launchers, often with a few hand grenades thrown in for good measure.
That might convince a few politicians on this side of the border that supposedly lax U.S. gun laws are key contributors to the deaths from drug violence, but most likely those politicians already favor stricter gun laws. More likely the reports are intended to sway American voters who, ignorant of many of the laws already on the books, might clamor for more laws to end the violence. If only it were that easy.
The truth is that U.S. gun laws are already quite restrictive when it comes to purchasing and owning fully automatic weapons and explosives. And the local gun shop or show isn’t likely to feature machine guns for sale. Even if they did, between the permit requirements and the law of supply and demand, they’d be fairly expensive. Why would a drug kingpin spend upward of $3,000 for a single automatic rifle, if he could find one at a U.S. shop, when that same money could buy five or six from an international arms dealer? It simply doesn’t make sense.
And more laws aren’t likely to make a difference in the violence, either. In the example above, the buyer is acting in the place of the final owner of the guns. If one were to accept the idea that Americans are purchasing firearms for shipment to Mexico, that’s called a “straw purchase.” Straw purchases are already illegal under U.S. laws.
Now, a report from FOXNews.com explains where the “fact” that most firearms used in Mexican violence come from the U.S. originated. In the news story, ATF Special Agent William Newell relates that in 2007-2008, Mexico submitted 11,000 guns to the ATF for tracing. The ATF was able to trace 6,000 of those. It turns out that 90 percent — ta-da! — of them originated in the U.S.
The problem with the statistic being thrown around is that according to the records of the Mexican government, 29,000 guns were recovered from crime scenes. FOXNews.com reports, “In other words, 68 percent of the guns that were recovered were never submitted for tracing. And when you weed out the roughly 6,000 guns that could not be traced from the remaining 32 percent, it means 83 percent of the guns found at crime scenes in Mexico could not be traced to the U.S.” That means 17 percent of the guns recovered at Mexican crime scenes have been traced back to the U.S. — a far cry from 90 percent.
It’s certainly true that U.S. policies are contributing to the violence in Mexico, but it’s the drug war, not our gun laws that fuels the violence. If the U.S. government wants to help end the violence in Mexico that’s beginning to spill over the border, changing the policy from drug prohibition to something more positive would be a good start.