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Dennis A. Henigan Headshot

Gun Industry Suffers Stinging Defeat in Court

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Last week, a federal judge in Washington handed the gun industry a painful legal setback in its efforts to prevent the Obama Administration from attacking the highly-profitable trafficking of assault rifles to the Mexican drug cartels.

Judge Rosemary Collyer -- who, incidentally, was appointed by George W. Bush -- upheld the Administration's new policy of requiring federally-licensed gun dealers in four border states to notify federal law enforcement authorities whenever there is a multiple purchase of certain semi-automatic rifles. Judge Collyer found this modest reporting requirement "reasonable" in light of evidence that "certain powerful long guns are weapons of choice of Mexican drug cartels" and "multiple sales of such guns is a strong indicator of gun trafficking."

The industry's reaction was a study in hypocrisy. The National Shooting Sports Foundation -- the industry trade association that brought the lawsuit -- issued a statement expressing its disappointment in the ruling, but emphasizing that "members of the firearms industry take great pride in their longstanding cooperative relationship" with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Yes, the industry is so "cooperative" that it took the ATF to court because retailers could not abide having to tell ATF when someone walks out of a Texas gun shop with ten semi-automatic assault rifles. I guess it's easy to be "cooperative" with ATF until the Bureau actually requires you to cooperate to fight gun trafficking.

The industry's strategy of contesting the reporting rule in court has clearly backfired. The gun industry has enthusiastically joined the National Rifle Association in denying that U.S. gun dealers are a primary source of guns for the Mexican cartels. Ironically, the industry's own lawsuit has given the government an opportunity to present the full range of evidence that the cartels are arming themselves with American guns, evidence the industry was unable to overcome.

For example, Judge Collyer cited a General Accountability Office report concluding that a "large proportion of the firearms fueling Mexican drug violence originated in the United States, including a growing number of increasingly lethal weapons." Judge Collyer relied on actual crime gun traces indicating that over 20,000 firearms seized by Mexican authorities and traced between 2004 and 2008 originated in the United States, mostly from the border states. This is likely a vast undercount since not all crime guns seized in Mexico are traced. Contrary to the gun lobby' s denial of reality, Judge Collyer found that "the states bordering Mexico have been shown to be major sources of guns related to crime in Mexico."

Indeed, the gun lobby has so distanced itself from reality on the issue of gun trafficking to Mexico that it now claims that the ATF's misguided "Fast and Furious" operation, in which ATF allowed some 2,000 guns to move from the U.S. to the cartels in an effort to get at cartel leaders, was itself a conspiracy to justify the rifle reporting rule. In the paranoid universe of the gun lobby, there was no trafficking of guns to Mexico until ATF authorized it during the Obama Administration to justify more gun restrictions.

This absurd theory struggles to explain the fact that the Bush Administration used similarly flawed tactics to combat the tidal wave of guns moving to Mexico long before the "Fast and Furious" operation was implemented. Given that "Fast and Furious" has come under fire because ATF may have allowed guns to "walk" into Mexico, it is odd that the NRA and the gun industry would object to a reporting requirement that would enable ATF to better stop trafficked guns before they get to the border.

Let's face it. Although there are some gun dealers responsible enough to voluntarily inform the authorities about suspicious transactions, the industry is dominated by manufacturers, distributors and retailers who profit so handsomely from high-volume sales to traffickers that they will fight any serious effort to curtail them. In Judge Collyer's ruling, the industry's hypocrisy is laid bare for all to see.

Dennis Henigan is the Acting President of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and the author of Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths That Paralyze American Gun Policy (Potomac Books 2009).