WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
8 Feb 2013 | Commentary

Making the Case for Tougher Gun Laws

In January, President Obama proposed a series of measures to deal with gun violence in the United States–including a ban on military style assault weapons, a ban on high capacity magazines, universal background checks, and stiffer penalties for gun trafficking.

A recent Los Angeles Times editorial underscored the point that the dangers from lax U.S. gun laws don’t stop at the border:

“There are plenty of reasons right here at home to support President Obama’s effort to reform the nation’s gun laws. But if Congress requires additional arguments, it should consider that easy access to guns is also undermining the United States’ avowed goal of combating drug trafficking and transnational gangs abroad.” (LA Times, 1/27/13)

Now, it is up to Congress to act.

Since 2006, over 60,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence in Mexico, many of them with guns illegally trafficked from the United States. Drug cartels favor military-style assault weapons like the ones that were used in recent mass killings in Newtown, CT and Aurora, CO. Approximately 70 percent of the guns recovered in Mexico and submitted for tracing came from the United States, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). Some of these guns are purchased at U.S. gun shops by straw purchasers with a clean record who then resell them to criminal gun traffickers or directly to drug cartels. Others are purchased by people with shady records at U.S. gun shows where guns can be bought and sold without background checks.

There is only one gun store in all of Mexico and that one is owned by the military. It sells only to the military and people with special permits. In contrast, there are more than 8,000 gun shops in the U.S. border states.

Weak U.S. laws make it extremely difficult to prosecute gun traffickers. There is no federal crime of gun trafficking. State and local penalties against straw purchasers who resell guns to criminals are notoriously weak. Often prosecutors are reluctant to take up cases that they know will end up going nowhere.

Each of the President’s key proposals on gun violence would have an impact on the flow of guns to Mexico. Measures to ban or limit the sale of assault weapons and high capacity ammunition would make it more difficult for gun traffickers to purchase these weapons.  Legislation to provide for universal background checks (making it impossible for someone to purchase a gun legally in the United States without the seller checking into their criminal records) would restrict the ability of people who are convicted of a crime to acquire guns.  But, specific legislation is needed to ban firearms trafficking and straw purchases.

Several bills, including two bipartisan bills, have been introduced in 2013 in both the Senate and the House of Representatives to make gun trafficking and straw purchasing a federal crime, especially when violent crime or drug trafficking are involved. Gun trafficking is one of the rare issues in the gun debate that has generated support from both political parties in Congress.

Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) introduced the Gun Trafficking Prevention Act of 2013, which makes gun trafficking and straw purchasing a federal crime.  Representatives Elijah Cummings (D-MD), Scott Rigell (R-VA), Patrick Meehan (R-PA) and Carolyn Maloney (D-NY)  introduced a companion bill in the House of Representatives.

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the Chair of the Judiciary Committee, and Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) introducedsimilar legislationthe Stop Illegal Trafficking in Firearms Act of 2013, which specifically prohibits smuggling guns out of the United States.

Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA) introduced the Straw Purchaser Penalty Enhancement Act, which would crack down on straw purchases. In announcing the legislation, Rep. Schiff noted that straw purchasers in the United States are responsible for many of the illegal firearm transfers to the Mexican drug cartels and that this legislation would provide “prosecutors with a new tool to go after the gangs and drug cartels and the gun smugglers that arm them.”

The Congressional debate on gun violence is moving quickly. The Senate has already begun hearings and gun legislation is expected to be among the first major issues that Congress addresses.

Update: On March 7, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed a bill to crack down on straw purchasing and gun trafficking. The Stop Illegal Firearms Trafficking Act of 2013 was sponsored by Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-Ny.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.). The bill merges earlier legislation introduced by Senators Gillibrand and Kirk with a separate bill introduced by Senators Leahy and Durbin. For more, see here.