News

Back to News

June 29, 2009

The New York Times Errs on Guns and Mexico


With its editorial "Death and American Guns in Mexico" on June 25, The Times misinformed its readers about a host of topics: federally licensed firearm retailers, the guns they sell, Mexican gun violence and the tracing of guns used in Mexican drug crimes.

The Times’ editorial starts out . . . "Drug-related murders in Mexico doubled last year, to 6,200, as cartels fight for the American addict’s dollar while relying on American gun dealers for their weapons."

For The Times to make this sweeping accusation casting federally licensed firearms retailers as the cause of the violence is a real reach and maligns small-business owners who follow the law, perform required federal background checks for all retail sales and sell firearms to responsible hunters, target shooters and those who choose to keep a gun for self-protection.

Clearly, it is the drug cartels and drug abusers who are the direct links to the violence, not law-abiding firearms retailers.

The Times implies that all gun shops and pawn brokers near the border—some 6,700 of them, all federally licensed—are corrupt, which is absurd. The truth is that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives relies on retailers to provide important information to federal law enforcement to help fight gun trafficking and illegal purchasing by cartel representatives and middlemen.

For nearly a decade, retailers have been receiving training to help them better detect and prevent illegal straw purchases through a joint federal-industry program called Don't Lie for the Other Guy. Such training is valuable because illegal purchases can be difficult to deter. The GAO report acknowledges: "Because the straw purchasers are legitimately qualified to purchase guns, they can be difficult to identify by gun shop owners and clerks, absent obvious clues that would signify a straw purchase is happening." The program’s educational materials help retailers spot behavioral and verbal clues that raise red flags and give the seller pause to question whether the transaction is legitimate and, if in doubt, to deny the sale and contact ATF.

Additionally, this same program warns anyone who might be thinking of making a quick buck as a straw purchaser that it is a felony to do so. Last week in a $500,000 effort, Don't Lie for the Other Guy was rolled out in the Rio Grande Valley for the second year and in Houston to drive home the point that there are serious penalties associated with illegal purchasing, which includes up to 10 years in jail and up to $250,000 in fines. In the coming months, the campaign will be launched in Tucson, El Paso and San Diego. Jail time is a strong deterrent and the warning will cause potential straw purchasers to think twice before entering a gun shop and lying to the clerk and also when filling out the federal Form 4473 that is required before any transaction can take place. NSSF would support legislation to require mandatory minimum sentences for anyone convicted of illegally straw purchasing a firearm.

In its editorial, The Times cites the misleading "90 percent of guns traced" statistic from the recently released Government Accountability Office report on combating gun trafficking, which NSSF has previously taken to task. From The Times: "A new report to Congress traces over 90 percent of guns recovered in Mexican drug crimes in the last three years back across the border . . . "

The Times has it backwards. Some 24 percent of guns seized in Mexican drug crimes were traced, with only 22 percent having originated in the United States. Here’s the math . . .

Mexico selectively chooses guns for tracing that are most likely to have come from the United States; however, only a fraction of all guns seized by Mexican authorities are submitted for tracing. For example, about 30,000 firearms were seized in Mexico last year, of which only 7,200 were submitted to ATF for tracing, according to the GAO report. Of those, 6,700 were found to have originated in the United States. That means 76 percent of the firearms recovered in Mexico were NOT even traced, and it’s unclear where those guns came from. Even the Department of Homeland Security questioned the report’s use of misleading figures involving guns seized and traced, and that’s right in the GAO report, though not mentioned by The New York Times.

Some media have reported that some grenades and rocket launchers were seized. Such military weapons, which are certainly not available commercially in the United States, came from stocks in Central American countries or through foreign military sales, according to ATF.

The average age of guns recovered in Mexico and traced to the United States has remained at 14 years old, according to ATF, which is inconsistent with the idea that waves of new guns are flooding from manufacturers to retailers and across the border into Mexico.

The Times: "What is also clear is that the American gun dealers . . . are supplying increasingly powerful military style weapons as the cartel wars intensify."

The GAO report states that in 2008 only about 25 percent of firearms seized and traced were of that type, which amounts to about six percent of the number of firearms seized that year. It’s unlikely that today gun traffickers are having much success in acquiring common semi-automatic rifles, given that these modern sporting firearms are the hottest selling civilian rifle being sold in America and that backorders for many months exist for them at most gun stores.

One way drug cartels are acquiring guns is that in recent years as many as 150,000 Mexican soldiers, 17,000 last year alone, defected to go work for the cartels, bringing their American-made, service-issued firearms with them.

The Times: "Congress must repeal restrictions that prevent a national gun registry and bar local enforcement agencies from sharing in federal tracing information."

Here The Times takes the occasion to bring up restrictions on gun owners it has long advocated. Of course, it’s unthinkable that Congress would allow a national gun registry, which it currently prohibits, and risk the political backlash of the estimated 85 million gun owners in the country who understand that their Second Amendment rights should not be curtailed because of events happening in another country. Registration is a necessary precursor to confiscation, which is precisely what many politicians ultimately would do with many classes of firearms.

What anti-gun legislators are attempting to do, however, is repeal the Tiahrt Amendment, which currently restricts the use of federal gun trace information to law enforcement agencies in order to protect the integrity of their investigations and the lives of officers. Contrary to The Times’ assertion, this tracing information can be shared between departments for investigative purposes. Those who would repeal Tiahrt want municipalities to have access to this sensitive information in order to launch nuisance lawsuits against retailers. Repealing Tiahrt is not going to happen, we are told, though there may be some changes to language in the amendment, which is reauthorized on yearly basis.

And neither The Times nor those who support repealing Tiahrt can show one police chief who was denied by ATF trace data about their community. The Times also ignores that ATF has provided Mexican law enforcement the ability to conduct traces electronically.

One key point The Times left out in its eagerness to promote gun control as the answer to Mexico’s drug-violence problems is corruption at all levels of Mexican law enforcement. Jess Ford, GAO’s director of international affairs and trade, told the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee, "Despite President [Felipe] Calderon's efforts to combat organized crime, extensive corruption at the federal, state and local levels of Mexican law enforcement impedes U.S. efforts to develop effective and dependable partnerships with Mexican government entities in combating arms trafficking."

Progress is being made, however, as untrustworthy employees are purged and the cartels are pressured more than ever, yet government officials acknowledge in the report that "implementing . . . reforms will take considerable time, and may take years to effect comprehensive change."

So it’s not 90 percent of Mexican guns used in crime that are coming from the United States. That’s just flat-out wrong. And the misleading "90 percent of all guns traced to Mexican drug crimes are coming from the United States" must always be clarified with "only about 22 percent of guns seized by Mexican authorities are proven to come from the United States." That’s a huge difference.