Yet Again, Media Exaggerates Scale of Gun Smuggling from U.S. Into Mexico

The Washington Post today ran a lengthy front-page story headlined “As Mexico drug violence runs rampant, U.S. guns tied to crime south of border.” The title pretty much sums it up: the Post states that an “unprecedented number of American guns [are flowing] to the murderous drug cartels across the border” and that this is fueling the violent battle between drug runners and the Mexican government.

Of course, one reason that battle has turned violent is because the Mexican government of Felipe Calderon is trying, for the first time, to crack down on the gangs, who – not surprisingly – are fighting back. The writ of the Mexican state has never run throughout Mexico, and it has often been undermined by corruption. The U.S. has much to gain from Calderon’s efforts, and it is in no way a criticism of Calderon to point out that violence in Mexico is driven by Mexican causes, and must find a Mexican solution.

Similarly, to the extent that there is gun running across the border from the U.S. into Mexico – and it certainly does exist – this, like the illegal immigrants that cross the other way, is a testimony to the fact that neither the U.S. nor Mexico controls the border. It would be a wonderful thing if U.S. newspapers, and politicians, campaigned as vigorously for border control as they do for gun control.

Sadly, the Post ignores the Mexican context, and sticks to the tried and true role of blaming the United States for Mexico’s problems. It breathlessly reports that twelve U.S. gun dealers “have had double-digit traces of ‘crime guns’ to their stores from Mexico.” That does not get us very far: ten is a “double-digit” number of traces. The Post singles out one gun dealer who, it claims, has had “more than 115 guns from his stores” seized in the past two years in Mexico. That is about one gun seized every week in all of Mexico.

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To back up its assertion that the U.S. is the source of most of Mexico’s guns (“statistics . . . show that 80 to 90 percent of the weapons seized in Mexico are first sold in the United States”), the Post cites the claim that “Federal authorities say that more than 60,000 U.S. guns of all types have been recovered in Mexico in the past four years.” This is a wild exaggeration. The Post is referring to an oft-cited U.S. Government Accountability Office study which shows that, of the guns seized in Mexico and given to the ATF for tracing from 2004 through 2008, approximately 87 percent originated in the U.S.

But this number says nothing about the percentage of guns seized in Mexico that originated in the U.S., because the U.S. does not trace – because they are not of U.S. origin, and so are not submitted by Mexican authorities to the U.S. for tracing – the majority of guns seized in Mexico. According to the GAO, the number of guns seized in Mexico that have been traced back to the U.S. has ranged from 5,260 in 2005 to 1,950 in 2006 to 3,060 in 2007 to 6,700 in 2008. That is a total of about 17,000, nowhere close to 60,000.

There really should not be any dispute about this. It is not an argument about policy. It is about nothing more, or less, than who can look up a number in a government publication more accurately. To its credit, the Post does give the National Rifle Association space for rebuttal, but it leaves the impression that “the gun lobby” is simply trying to defend a long-discredited position. The reality is that, if 60,000 guns – or 75,000, as President Calderon said in May – have been seized in Mexico in recent years, less than a third have been traced back to the U.S.

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Amazingly, the Post even acknowledges that “most guns seized in Mexico [are] not traced.” If that is so, then it is obviously impossible to know what proportion of guns came from the United States. As Jess T. Ford, the GAO’s Director of International Affairs and Trade, put it when he testified before the House in 2009, “is impossible to know how many firearms are illegally trafficked into Mexico in a given year.” By acknowledging the limited scope of Mexican tracing, the Post destroys the creditability of its claim that the vast majority of guns seized in Mexico come from the U.S.

The Post, at least, spares its readers another round of praise for CIFTA, the Inter-American Convention Against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives, and Other Related Materials. That is a relief, because CIFTA is a bad treaty for a great many reasons. But make no mistake: these sorts of stories are part of an ongoing effort to secure CIFTA’s ratification by persuading the American public, and U.S. Senators, that CIFTA will cure Mexico’s ills. Fortunately, the Senate seems [5] in no mood to go along. But that does not stop the treaty’s supporters from trying. It would, though, be nice if they could at least look up the numbers accurately.

Source material can be found at this site.

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