Gun Smuggling: Too Many Agencies, Not Enough Data

Despite the ongoing epidemic of violent crime in Mexico, it remains much easier for an illegal immigrant to buy a weapon in the US than for a Mexican citizen to buy one in Mexico.

A recent report by the Government Accountability Office has found that 70% of the firearms seized in Mexico last year originated in the US. Most came from Southwest border states. According to the GAO, most of these weapons were bought legally in the US, and then smuggled across the border.

The Scale Of The Problem

The US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) release data each year on the number of weapons seized in Mexico, and seeks to trace the origin of these weapons. Between 2009 and 2014, 105,000 guns were seized, and of these some 70,000 came from the US. 17% were traced to other countries, and 13% could not be tracked.

It is now estimated that some 2000 illegal weapons cross the US-Mexico border each day. According to Mexican government sources, some 85% of the 15 million weapons currently in Mexico are illegal. While the proximity of the US is the largest factor in criminal’s decision to buy weapons here, there is another reason: for drug gangs, the weapons of choice are military-style assault weapons, and these are easily available in the US.

These weapons contribute to an epidemic of gun violence in Mexico. A few months back, a new report was published that showed that Mexico had 23,000 intentional homicides in 2016. This means that the country is second only to war-torn Syria in terms of murder rate. Battles between drug gangs and security forces have claimed more than 100,000 lives since 2007.

Stopping gun smuggling across the border is a complex challenge, not least because of the lack of information available on gun sales in the US. No records need to be kept of guns purchased at gun fairs, or sold through private auctions. In addition, many smugglers remove the serial numbers from the weapons they buy, making them very difficult to trace.

In addition, there is a lack of cooperation between the US and Mexican governments. In a report published after the arrest of Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, a US Federal watchdog agency criticized the scaling-back of efforts to stop this traffic, stating that “Efforts to stem firearms and cheap ammo trafficking between the United States and Mexico were scaled back as the administration of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto reconsidered bilateral law enforcement cooperation”.

The situation is only likely to get worse now that Trump is President. With relations between the US and Mexico at an all-time low, following disagreements about Trump’s border wall and other issues, it is unlikely that bilateral enforcement is going to re-start anytime soon.

The Solution

Re-building trust between the US and Mexican governments undoubtedly forms part of the solution to this problem. However, there are several other ways in which it could be addressed.

First, let’s examine one argument normally put forward by the left – that the smuggling is exacerbated lax gun regulation in the US. While it is true that firearms are easy to buy in the US, even by illegal immigrants, in reality tightening up gun laws is unlikely to stop smuggling. These weapons are already bought for illegal purposes, and so by increasing limitations on the ale of firearms the problem is just going to be driven underground.

Even if relations between the US and Mexican governments could be improved, there are long-standing problems with the way that the US addresses this problem. Not only is there a lack of data on who buys weapons in the US, but what little information there is is held by agencies that seem adverse to sharing it.

In reality, the problem is caused by another long-standing problem in our country – the over-reach of, and competition between, federal agencies. As far back as 2009, the GAO noted that the ATF and the ICE were duplicating each other’s work, and that their respective jurisdictions were hazily defined. Notably, the ATF has been unable to trace more than half of the original purchasers of these weapons due to incomplete data.

In this area, what is needed is clarification of the jurisdiction of the two agencies, and a way to monitor their ability to share information.

Sam Bocetta is a retired engineer who worked for over 35 years as a defense contractor for the U.S. Navy, specializing in electronic warfare and advanced computer systems. He teaches in Ottawa, Canada as a part time engineering professor and is the ASEAN affairs correspondent for Gun News Daily.

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