Rep. Cummings Investigates Weak Gun Trafficking Laws After Talks With Mexican Officials

July 05, 2011 3:21 pm ET — Chris Brown

Rep. Elijah Cummings

Last week Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), the ranking member of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, held a hearing on the weaknesses of current laws used to fight gun trafficking.

Cummings, along with other members of the committee, had recently met with government officials in Mexico as part of their investigation into the failed ATF sting operation the Fast and Furious. Yet during the committee's original hearing on Fast and Furious, Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) had stated that questions about the current state of gun trafficking laws were outside the scope of the hearing, leading Cummings to hold a separate forum to investigate the topic.

Rep. Cummings opened the forum with this statement:

Last week, I traveled to Mexico City with Chairman Issa and five other Members of Congress to meet with Mexican authorities and senior U.S. officials. They shed further light on an already alarming situation: tens of thousands of high-powered military-grade assault weapons are being smuggled into Mexico from the United States. These weapons are arming the world's most violent and powerful drug cartels, costing the lives of 40,000 Mexican citizens in the last five years. [...]

As detailed in the report I am issuing today, law enforcement agents charged with keeping guns out of the hands of criminals have told this Committee that they do not have the resources they need to counter firearms trafficking. The agents told us that sentences for "straw purchasers" are too weak to deter criminals, too weak to cause them to "flip" on higher level cartel members, and too weak for prosecutors to charge these cases when the typical penalty is probation.

During the forum, Michael Bouchard, a retired ATF agent with more than 30 years of senior law enforcement experience, laid out clearly the sometimes insurmountable difficulties that law enforcement faces in trying to stop the illegal trafficking of weapons (partial transcript below the fold):


Video courtesy of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence

BOUCHARD: Investigating trafficking cases typically begins with a straw purchaser, someone who buys a gun for another person. They typically have no criminal record and buy firearms for others for various reasons. Law enforcement must determine if it is a straw purchaser, one who uses someone else's money to buy a gun for them, or if it is a gun trafficker, one who simply—who buys guns and later resells them for profit.

Since agents can rarely prove the buyer lied on the ATF form 4473, they often must wait until the person buys multiple firearms and transfers them to others. These cases are rarely prosecuted due to the complexities of the circumstances. If the buyer is a gun trafficker, there is no violation until the person engages in the business of selling firearms without a license. In those cases you must prove through the preponderance of evidence that the person is not selling from their personal collection but is engaged in selling guns without a license. In these cases numerous firearms have to change hands before you can prove your case.  [...]

If the buyer makes the purchase through a private sale, such as those from unlicensed dealers at gun shows, they can buy as many firearms as they desire. They fill out no federal forms, therefore no violation exists under the federal law. Furthermore, in these situations there is no need for a straw purchaser because there is no record check and there is no record of the sale. [...]

There's no definition of firearms trafficking. The closest federal charge is dealing without a license, which is difficult to prove as I stated earlier.  [...]

It's evident that many of the gun trafficking organizations are purchasing long guns, rifles and shotguns, and transporting them to Mexico. With no multiple sales reporting requirements for long guns, ATF and others rarely know about the purchases until one or more are traced in a crime. By that time, hundreds could have been trafficked. Without this means of early warning, ATF and law enforcement officers have a minimal chance of preventing large numbers of firearms from being trafficked to criminals. [...]

It's obvious that criminals change their tactics to exploit weaknesses in our laws. I believe it's time we put our ideologies aside and use common sense approaches to attack a problem that affects the security of our country and its neighbors.

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