Washington, D.C.—With the United States’ gun laws already in the national spotlight, a new report raises major questions about the number of firearms imported to the United States from elsewhere, only to end up in the hands of Mexican criminal organizations. According to a joint report released today by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and the Violence Policy Center (VPC), semiautomatic assault rifles imported to the United States account for significant portions of the arsenals of Mexico’s drug cartels.
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The report, “Gun Running Nation: How Foreign-Made Assault Weapons are Trafficked from the United States to Mexico and What to Do About It,” uses a database of indictments from U.S. court records between 2008 and 2014 to show that these imported guns account for the majority—59 percent—of seized guns bound for Latin America. Previous efforts to document this gun flow, based on trace data from guns seized in Mexico, have fallen short of this figure. For instance, the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) has presented data suggesting that 25 percent of U.S.-sourced firearms traced in Mexico were first imported into the United States.
“The flow of these foreign-made guns into the hands of drug cartels in Mexico represents a major security threat,” said Clay Boggs, Program Officer at WOLA, and a co-author of the report. “President Obama says he has done what he can to address this issue, but there is one last big thing that he could do: break the supply chain and stop the flow of semiautomatic assault rifles from other countries.”
In the report, Boggs and VPC Legislative Director Kristen Rand recommend that U.S. President Barack Obama take executive action to restrict the importation of semiautomatic weapons to the United States. As they note, current law provides the president legal authority to restrict the importation of firearms that are not “particularly suitable for or readily adaptable to sporting purposes” without the need for congressional approval.
“These rifles are cheap, they are reliable, and they are a ‘weapon of choice’ of cross-border drug traffickers. President Obama could make it more difficult and costly for criminals to buy these lethal weapons,” said Rand.
Two former U.S. presidents, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, recognized that imported semiautomatic assault rifles are both lethal and popular among criminals. They therefore conducted reviews of firearms imports, one in 1989 and one in 1998, in an attempt to tighten restrictions. Each time, the firearms industry has adapted its practices to comply with the letter of these regulations while frustrating its intent. The authors of this report recommend that ATF conduct a yearly review to identify firearms that are strongly linked to drug trafficking and gun trafficking, and they recommend that ATF ban the importation of such firearms.
“This is a significant new approach to an old problem,” says Joy Olson, Executive Director at WOLA. “If the President wants to do something about gun violence, here’s something that would make a real difference here and in Mexico.”