Congressional Hearing Witnesses Shoot Down Gun Lobby Myths

June 30, 2011 4:50 pm ET — Chris Brown

For years the National Rifle Association (NRA) and their gun lobby allies have challenged reports that increasing numbers of firearms sold in the U.S. are winding up in the hands of Mexican drug cartel gunmen. Just last week, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) issued a letter that misleadingly disputed the latest gun tracing data on U.S.-to-Mexico weapons trafficking.

Today House Oversight Committee ranking member Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) held a forum on gun trafficking that included testimony from global arms trade expert Colby Goodman and other expert witnesses. They debunked several key gun lobby talking points used to deny the role of U.S. weapons in cartel violence. From Goodman's testimony:

Myth 1: ATF only has information on a very limited number of firearms seized in Mexico [...]

Since late 2009, as mentioned earlier, Mexico has been providing a lot more data to ATF on the firearms it seizes. According to recent Mexican government figures, Mexico has confiscated a total of 102,600 firearms as a part of various crimes in Mexico from the start of President Calderon's Administration in December 2006 to March 10, 2011. Of the 102,600 firearms, ATF has indicated that Mexico has submitted 78,641 firearm trace requests related to firearms seized from December 2006 to March 2010. While ATF has since said thousands of these trace requests are duplicates, that gives ATF information on at least 68,000 unique firearms or 70 percent of Mexico's total. The more pressing problem now is the quality of the information in the trace requests.

Goodman also called out two of the gun lobby's favorite misdirections: 1) that cartels' guns largely originate from legal sales to the Mexican military, and 2) that automatic AK-47s found in Mexico can't be of U.S. origin because the sale of fully automatic weapons is restricted in the U.S.

Both talking points are favorites of gun lobby allies, and are meant to deny the reality of gun trafficking to Mexico. From Goodman's testimony:

Myth 2: The overwhelming majority of the U.S. - origin firearms seized in Mexico come from U.S. government transfers to the Mexican military or police

While it's possible although not probable when more data becomes available that U.S. government approved exports will have a larger role, it is clear from the current data and evidence that Mexican organized crime organizations are obtaining many of their firearms from the U.S. domestic gun market. According to ATF in May 2010, they were able to trace to the first purchaser or seller an estimated 25 percent (17, 452) of the firearms Mexico had seized from 2007 to 2010 (69,808). According to U.S. officials within ATF and the U.S. Department of State, of the 17,452 firearms, ATF traced only around one percent of them to U.S. government approved exports of firearms to Mexico. ATF traced the rest of these firearms to first purchasers in the U.S. domestic gun market. [...]

Myth 3: Mexican organized crime groups are not obtaining their automatic AK-47s from United States [...]

Although it is certainly true that Mexican organized crime groups are buying AK-47s from Central America, ATF has indicated that some of the U.S. imported AK-47s had been converted from semiautomatic rifles to fire as a select-fire machine guns before being seized by Mexican authorities. There have been reports that specialists in Mexico do the conversions, but it's also possible the conversion happens in the United States. Additionally, there is evidence to suggest that Mexican organized crime groups value newer or refurbished U.S. imported AK-47s over older often less taken care of AK-47s from Central America. A former drug trafficker indicated to my co-author, Michael Marizco, that one can sell an AK-47 in Mexico along the southwest border for two to three times the price of what it costs in the United States. If one sells the same AK-47 farther from the U.S. border in Mexico, say in Oaxaca, the firearm can be sold five to seven times above the purchase price.

What isn't a myth? That U.S. guns such as .50 caliber sniper rifles, mata policia ("cop killer") Five-seveN pistols, and AK-47 variants are cartel favorites.

In addition to Goodman's testimony, the role of these weapons was highlighted during today's hearing by Violence Policy Center legislative director Kristen Rand:

Our analysis confirms that traffickers have become focused on certain "weapons of choice": AK-47 variant rifles, with the most popular being the Romanian WASR; AR-15 variant rifles including those manufactured by Bushmaster and DPMS; FN Five-seveN handguns; 50 caliber sniper rifles and 50 BMG belt-fed rifles; and, most recently, Draco AK-47 pistols like the ones used in the attack on ICE agent Jaime Zapata.

And here's Goodman describing why .50 caliber sniper rifles are popular cartel weapons:

U.S.-origin .50 BMG caliber sniper rifles have also played a destructive role in Mexico.ATF officials have said Mexican crime groups continue to seek .50 BMG caliber riles because they can strike accurately from more than a mile away and penetrate light armor. In several examples, such groups have used .50 BMG caliber riles to assassinate Mexican police and other government officials traveling in armored vehicles. In early 2008, for example, it was reported that Mexican gunmen used a U.S.-origin .50 BMG caliber rifle to shoot Francisco Salazar, the head of local police operations in Ciudad Juárez.

NRA board member Ronnie Barret CEO of Barret Firearms Manufacturers describes his company's 82A1 .50 caliber armor-piercing rifle as "battle proven"; Mexican drug lords agree.

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