The Administration announced today that the Justice Department will require firearms dealers in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas to report to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), if an individual purchases -within 5 days – more than one semiautomatic rifle that takes a detachable magazine and uses ammunition greater than .22 caliber. In a statement, Deputy Attorney General James Cole stated:
The international expansion and increased violence of transnational criminal networks pose a significant threat to the United States. Federal, state and foreign law enforcement agencies have determined that certain types of semi-automatic rifles – greater than .22 caliber and with the ability to accept a detachable magazine – are highly sought after by dangerous drug trafficking organizations and frequently recovered at violent crime scenes near the Southwest Border. This new reporting measure — tailored to focus only on multiple sales of these types of rifles to the same person within a five-day period — will improve the ability of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to detect and disrupt the illegal weapons trafficking networks responsible for diverting firearms from lawful commerce to criminals and criminal organizations. These targeted information requests will occur in Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas to help confront the problem of illegal gun trafficking into Mexico and along the Southwest Border.
The proposal is not completely a surprise, as the Federal Register published the proposal in December and then in late April, requesting public comment. The announcement comes after Congress has been investigating ATF’s operation “Fast and Furious” in Arizona. The operation has been criticized as ATF allegedly allowed almost 2000 guns bought by straw purchasers in the U.S. to be sent to Mexico, despite the monitoring of the sales by ATF. It is believed that two of the weapons linked to the program played a role in the murder of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry last December.
The National Rifle Association has indicated that it plans to file suit against the government for the new rules. The NRA claims that the Administration does not have the legal authority to enact the rules and that by doing so it is circumventing Congressional action.
What we have now is a Mexican standoff with neither side likely to budge on what it believes is needed to protect the border or protect gun owner rights, respectively. A few observations:
The ongoing drug wars in Mexico are serious and guns are playing a significant role; that is true. Some population of those guns are originating from the U.S., though the exact percentage is unknown. Those for restricting gun sales have claimed it is up to 90 percent. Those against claim that number is an exaggeration, as not all the guns found in Mexico are sent back for tracing and that the actual number is in the teens. Whatever the number, the ongoing violence is starting to seep over to the U.S. and all sides should not be quabbling over percentages but trying to find a solution to a problem that is not only in our backyard, but making its way through our backdoor.
That said, it is not clear how effective the new rules will be and whether they really address the larger problems associated with the escalating violence. As written, they only are enforceable for gun dealers within the border states. Based on reports by GAO and others, while those states may have a higher percentage of guns sold that migrate to Mexico, they don’t represent 100% of guns traced back to the U.S. Will putting this requirement in place only increase dubious sales at non-border states with “friendly” gun laws? Also, does ATF have the capacity to examine the increased reporting materials in a manner that will allow it to effectively identify which sales are linked to the drug wars and which are merely linked to individuals exercising their 2nd Amendment rights? If the “Fast and Furious” project is any indication then the agency needs much improvement in this realm to ensure that the rules are an effective tool and not a burdensome requirement.
At the same time, as noted earlier, the violence in Mexico is worsening and seeping over into the U.S. and affecting border cities and U.S. citizens. The NRA and others who support 2nd Amendment rights while protecting the rights they believe in should help the government come up with effective and systematic ways to keep guns out of the hands of those who would do harm to our citizens and our communities.
If we are truly going to address guns crossing the border- regardless of whether is 90 percent or 17 percent of the problem – we all need to work together.