The Shrinking 'Vast Majority": NSSF Responds to ATF Mexican Trace Report
By Larry Keane
ATF [recently] released a report on firearms submitted by the government of Mexico for tracing since 2007. One screaming headline referred to the "Vast Majority of Mexican Crime Guns Originate in U.S. New ATF Trace Data Reveals." If you have been following the issue of Mexican gun traces on this blog, you will realize the truth is a rapidly shrinking "Vast Majority" and the so-called "flood" of guns going into Mexico moves at glacier-like speed.
The mainstream media has consistently falsely claimed that 90 percent of all firearms recovered in Mexico come from the United States. The "90 percent myth" stems from a misstatement by then-ATF Deputy Director Billy Hoover during congressional testimony in 2009. The myth spread like wildfire and the smoke from that firestorm still obscures the facts. We have put the lie to the 90 percent myth in past blog posts. A report by the independent research group STRATFOR has shown that it is erroneous and grossly misleading to say the majority of firearms recovered in Mexico came from the United States. In fact, only 12 percent of the firearms misused in Mexico were originally sold at retail in the United States.
In 2009, a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) showed that only about 80 percent of firearms recovered in Mexico and submitted for tracing were originally sold at retail in the United States, not the 90 percent the media keeps reporting.
But it shouldn't surprise anyone to learn that many of the firearms recovered and traced come from the United States. That is because U.S. law requires markings on firearms precisely so they can be traced by law enforcement through commerce. It is sort of like tracing the VIN number on cars on a Ford dealership lot and be surprised to learn that most are Fords. What the 90 percent myth does not account for, and the media turns a blind eye to, and what yesterday's ATF report does not shed light on, is the fact that you know nothing about the firearms recovered in Mexico but were never traced — like the firearms that the 150,000 or so Mexican soldiers took with them when they defected to go work for the drug cartels over the past several years.
Logically, Mexican officials wouldn't bother to trace the U.S.-made firearms they know belonged to the Mexican government or law enforcement, the results of which would be highly embarrassing to Mexican officials. Nor does yesterday's report account for guns that have been smuggled into Mexico from South and Central America.
As Professor Gary Kleck has observed, "It's likely that police in Mexico submit for ATF tracing only those crime guns that they believe originated in the U.S. This would be reasonable, since those are the ones that the ATF is likely to be able to trace, but it is not a sample from which to generalize. Even if guns of American origin account for only a small share of all Mexican crime guns, they would comprise nearly all of those submitted by the Mexican authorities for tracing by the ATF."
It is important to note that these percentages do not reflect the total number of firearms recovered. In fact, in 2009 then-ATF Acting Director Kenneth Melson sent a letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) admitting, "There are no United States Government sources that maintain any record of the total number of criminal firearms seized in Mexico."
[The latest] ATF report shows that this "vast majority" continues to shrink.
According to ATF, of the firearms recovered and traced by Mexico during the time period covered by the report, as few as 65 percent, and most recently just 71 percent, of the firearms Mexico asked ATF to trace were determined to have come from the United States. But even the information in [the latest] report is not entirely new information. In a report titled, "Halting U.S. Firearms Trafficking to Mexico," released in June of 2011 by a trio of anti-gun senators, Feinstein, Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), showed the number of firearms that have been recovered in Mexico and traced to the United States were actually declining in recent years from the mythical 90 percent to an unsubstantiated 70 percent. The June 2011 figures have now been substantiated.
A deeper dive into yesterday's report reveals that even a smaller percentage still were actually successfully traced to the first retail purchaser, ranging from only 37 percent to as low as just 25 percent. It is important to heed ATF's caution that "[a] crime gun trace alone does not mean that [a firearms retailer] or firearm purchaser has committed an unlawful act. Crime gun trace information is used in combination with other investigative facts in regulatory and criminal enforcement." — ATF Crime Gun Trace Reports (introduction, p. 4 of the Youth Crime Gun Interdiction Initiative).
Perhaps ATF should also heed its own warnings. Its report cautions that "firearms selected for tracing are not chosen for purposes of determining which types, makes or models of firearms are used for illicit purposes," that "[f]irearms selected [for tracing] do not constitute a random sample and should not be considered representative of the larger universe of all firearms used by criminals, or any subset of that universe," and that "firearms traced do not necessarily represent the source or methods by which firearms in general are acquired for use in crime." Yet, that is precisely what ATF said in its press release yesterday, declaring that the trace data "shows a trend in recovered and submitted crime guns from Mexico shifting from pistols and revolvers to rifles."
Auturo Sarukhan, the Mexican ambassador to the U.S., once made the absurd claim that Mexico seizes 2,000 guns a day from the United States — that amounts to 730,000 a year. Calderon claimed just the other day to support his call for Congress to reinstate the ban on modern sporting rifles that Mexico had recovered 140,000 firearms in the past four years and that "the vast majority have been assault weapons, AK-57s (sic), etc. And many, the vast majority of these weapons, were sold in gun shops in the United States."
According to ATF, Mexico only submitted 68,000 firearms over five years, many of which did not come from the United States. More interesting, however, is the fact that of those firearms submitted for tracing less than half, and in some years as few as 28 percent, were rifles of any kind. The report does not break out the number or percentage of so-called "assault rifles," i.e. AK-47 look-alikes (Like M-16s, AK-47s are automatic firearms. While civilian versions of M-16s are AR-15s, there is no corollary name for civilian versions of AK-47) or AR-15 variants. The report also doesn't tell us what percentage of the rifles submitted for tracing were determined not to be of U.S. origin and it also doesn't tell us what percentage were not successfully traced to the first retail purchaser.
Perhaps what is most interesting about ATF's report is the fact that it does not discuss the "Time to Crime" (TTC) for the Mexican traced firearms. ATF always gives TTC when it issues a tracing report. Why did ATF omit this piece of information? Because it knows that on average firearms (of all types) recovered in Mexico and successfully traced were on average originally sold at retail after a background check more than 15 years ago.
It is increasingly clear that this rapidly shrinking "vast majority" of firearms allegedly flooding over the border into Mexico are moving at a glacial pace.
We can all agree that there are serious crime problems in Mexico, and notwithstanding his factual misstatements, we do applaud Mexican President Calderon's courage for cracking down on the drug cartels and rampant corruption in his country, that has even reached inside his inner circle. However, laying the blame for Mexico's crime at the feet of the U.S. firearms industry is more an act of frustration than a crime-fighting strategy, and, as we've said before, sacrificing the constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans as a means of addressing this issue is neither an option nor a solution.
Larry Keane is Senior Vice President and General Counsel of the National Shooting Sports Foundation.