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Dennis A. Henigan Headshot

Guns to Mexico: NRA Mythology Cannot Survive the Facts

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The pressure is building on U.S. officials to take dramatic action to stop the torrent of guns heading directly from American gun shops to the Mexican drug cartels.

One thing is clear. Huge numbers of guns are involved. According to a new report, U.S. Firearms Trafficking to Mexico, by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the University of San Diego Trans-Border Institute, of 75,000 firearms seized by the Mexican government in the last three years, about 80%, or 60,000 firearms, came from the United States. In the last three years, there have been an estimated 28,000 drug-related killings in Mexico, the vast majority by gunfire.

In addition to documenting the southward flow of U.S. guns, the Wilson Center report manages to debunk multiple myths long perpetrated by the gun lobby. The report has a particularly persuasive power because it was not written as a response to the gun lobby's arguments, but rather as a straightforward account of the reality of gun trafficking to Mexico. That reality contradicts the gun lobby's claims again and again.

For example, the National Rifle Association asserts that gun shows have nothing to do with how criminals get guns, even though gun shows are a primary venue for sales by unlicensed private sellers that evade the Brady criminal background check system. The Wilson Center report, however, cites federal law enforcement officials saying that "firearms traffickers continue to purchase firearms at gun shows and other secondary sources, which require fewer checks on a person's identity and criminal history . . ." This is the infamous "gun show loophole," which the NRA says does not exist. One ATF official told the report's authors "a good time to catch firearm smugglers is right after a U.S. gun show in Arizona or Texas."

The NRA and other gun advocates also have long insisted that there is no real difference between semi-automatic assault weapons and other kinds of guns. Apparently, the Mexican cartels disagree. According to the Wilson Center report, of the 85,000 firearms seized by Mexico since December 2006, 50,000 are AK-47 and AR-15 assault rifles. It is astounding that almost 60% of these Mexican crime guns are assault rifles, particularly since we know most of them came from the U.S. and assault rifles have always been a tiny percentage of the American gun market.

This means that when straw buyers for the Mexican traffickers visit American gun shops, they must be cleaning them out of assault rifles and asking for more. Great for assault weapon makers like Bushmaster. Bad for Mexican police. Given the cartels' voracious appetite for assault rifles, can the NRA seriously maintain that they have no special appeal to the most violent of criminals? That they are just like other guns?

Semiautomatic assault rifles are designed to deliver a high volume of firepower - the capacity to fire a lot of rounds quickly and effectively with no pause to reload. Their military features enhance that capacity, from large-capacity ammunition magazines holding scores of rounds, to pistol grips to increase control during rapid fire.

Contrary to the NRA's claim that these military features are merely "cosmetic," in fact they serve valuable functions in combat scenarios, whether the combat is between armies, or between the drug cartels and the police. In fact, the Wilson Center report quotes a former gun trafficker for the Mexican cartels, explaining that "AK-47s are highly valued" especially those with folding stocks (a strictly military feature) because it makes the rifle "shorter, more concealable" and therefore "highly requested" by drug trafficking organizations.

Every major U.S. law enforcement organization supports strong restrictions on assault weapons. Does the gun lobby really believe the police oppose these guns because they merely "look scary"?

Finally, the Wilson Center report destroys what is perhaps the core of the gun lobby's mythology: that strong gun laws are futile because they cannot affect criminal access to guns. Indeed, the very existence of gun trafficking from the U.S. to Mexico contradicts the NRA's argument. Why do Mexican drug cartels have to resort to U.S. gun shops at all?

The answer is plain: because Mexico's strong gun laws are effective. A former drug trafficker told the report's authors "one can sell an AK-47 in Mexico for three to four times its purchase price in the United States along the southwest border." An advanced degree in economics is not required to understand that this price differential reflects Mexico's success in limiting the supply of Mexican assault rifles, thus forcing the cartels to exploit U.S. sources.

On the gun issue, the American people and the people of Mexico have a common cause. In both our countries, the gun lobby's mythology, which long has paralyzed American gun policy, is taking too many lives and destroying too many families.

For more information, see Dennis Henigan's Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy (Potomac Books 2009)