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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

More on Mexican Guns

After we posted our April 17 story ("Counting Mexico’s Guns") pointing out the absence of data to back up statements from Obama administration officials (including the president), journalists and others that 90 percent of the guns recovered in Mexico come from the U.S, we still had a few questions about the tracing process. At the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), we sat down with Charles Houser, chief of the agency’s National Tracing Center, who was kind enough to give us a large chunk of a recent afternoon.

As we noted in our article, Obama and others would have been accurate to say that more than 90 percent of the guns that Mexican authorities recover in crimes and submit to ATF for tracing come from the U.S. One lingering question, though, was why the Mexicans ask ATF to trace so few of the guns they recover. In fiscal 2008, trace requests came in on 7,743 guns, and in FY 2007, it was 3,312 guns, for a total of 11,055. But Mexico’s attorney general has said that authorities there recovered about 29,000 guns in that period. That means roughly 18,000 guns captured by law enforcement were not submitted for tracing.

Why not? Several reasons, according to Houser. One is that some officials — in the U.S. as well as in Mexico — don’t realize the benefits of tracing a weapon. In many cases, law enforcement has sufficient evidence to convict a suspect without running a trace on any gun that might have been recovered, Houser said. He and other ATF officials preach the gospel on the information that can be gleaned from tracing. For instance, traces on guns picked up in routine traffic stops might reveal a pattern that would unmask gang activity. It’s all about making larger connections. "We have spent several years going around the United States saying that it’s not just about one moment in time and one single investigation," said Houser. "It’s about what is the source of guns for whatever the deal is that’s going on. What’s the big strategic picture of the movement of these firearms?"

Other reasons: In Mexico, the farther away a police station is from a major city, the less likely it is that officials there will have access to ATF’s eTrace system, which allows a trace request to be submitted to the agency via the Internet. Without that access, requests can be submitted the old-fashioned way, via paper, but the hassle factor increases and with it the willingness of police to go through with it. "We’ve got to distribute [eTrace] more broadly so it’s closer to where the recovery comes from," said Houser. "Let’s face it, without the electronic means of tracing, you’re relying on faxes or paper moving from one inbox to another. It’s not particularly efficient, and it takes a long time for [a gun] to finally get traced."

And there’s a major impediment to using eTrace in Mexico even where it is technologically possible, Houser said: There is no Spanish-language version of eTrace yet. That’s in the works, according to Houser, but it’s not yet online. With the new version will come the ability to transmit digital photographs of weapons, as well. Currently, a trace request should include a physical description of the gun as well as serial number and any other identifying information, but that description is often flawed. "The number one reason a gun trace is not successful, with regards to Mexico and with regards to the United States, is the same," said Houser. "The gun description is wrong. A bad gun description."

None of this changes what we said in our article, which is that we simply don’t know whether the guns submitted by Mexico for tracing are a representative sample of all the guns recovered in criminal matters in that country. We can’t conclude, therefore — and neither can anyone else — that 90 percent of all the crime-related firearms recovered in Mexico come from the U.S. Nevertheless, Houser said that in his view, the claim is correct. "The government of Mexico says that virtually all of the guns that they recover come from the United States. … I’ve been down there. Other agents have been down there. A lot of agents are there in the vicinity. They haven’t seen any indication of any significant number of foreign-made guns whatsoever and the trace information seems to corroborate it. From what we know about gun trafficking, it makes sense to us. Who’s the nearest manufacturer of firearms? The United States."

And Houser thinks the debate over the precise number isn’t productive. "It seems so obvious to me that I find it difficult to believe that everybody’s gotten so wound up about this," he said. "I mean, just for last year, what happens if it were 85 percent of the guns that came from the United States? Does that make much difference? Not really."

We were also able to address another matter. Some who dispute the 90 percent figure have written to us speculating that many of the weapons traced to the U.S. aren’t actually smuggled across the border. They claim these guns were provided to the Mexican military or police by the United States, and were either stolen or wound up on the wrong side of the law due to corruption. Not true, according to ATF. An agency spokeswoman, Janice Kemp, told us that between 2004 and 2008 only about 1 percent of the guns Mexican authorities asked the agency to trace were found to have been legally transferred to the government of Mexico. Further, an even smaller fraction of the guns ATF researched for Mexico were traced back to the U.S. Defense Department.