Fisking the Daily Star

The Arizona Daily Star published an article in their Sunday Edition that stood out to me when I was grocery shopping today: it had a large, above-the-fold headline entitled, “US makes it easy for gun traffickers.”
While their article is long and makes a weak attempt at appearing balanced, it has some absurdities that I really must point out. I’ve made a few statements in my response that are likely to be common knowledge to gunny folks, though I’d appreciate it if readers could point out where I might find good sources for such statements so I can cite them properly.
Also, I wrote this post rather late at night, so I’m likely to have a few spelling or grammar mistakes. Mea cupla.

Behind the rows of gun-filled tables at the back of the exhibition hall, a large red banner shines like a beacon:
AK-47.
Beneath the sign, Joeken Firearms owner Joe Cox does a brisk business selling the popular semiautomatic rifle at gun shows such as this one and at his store in Winslow. The rifle is fun to shoot and easier to clean than other rifles, and, perhaps more importantly, it carries a powerful allure, he says.
“It looks cool,” Cox says. “Why do people buy flashy cars? Because they look cool.”

Ok, we’re off to a decent start. The AK is indeed fun to shoot, tends to be easier to clean, and does have a certain look to it.

Semiautomatic rifles such as the AK-47 and AR-15 ? commonly called assault rifles ? are favorites of the warring drug cartels in Mexico, which get most of their weapons in the U.S. and smuggle them south, says the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, commonly known as ATF.

What? Since when are the semi-auto AK and AR referred to as “assault rifles”? The term “assault rifle” has a very specific definition, and includes (in part) a requirement that the rifle be “select-fire” — that is, the gun must be able to be switched from semi-auto mode to full-auto or burst-fire mode. Semi-auto AKs and ARs, by definition, cannot be switched in this manner.
If the ATF (since their website is http://www.atf.gov/ and has the letters “ATF” in huge letters at the top of the main page, I think mentioning that the agency is “commonly known” as “ATF” is a bit unnecessary) thinks that semi-auto rifles are known as “assault rifles,” then someone at the ATF is grossly misinformed. More likely, however, is that the reporter is totally unfamiliar with firearms and simply added the words for dramatic effect.
I also doubt the veracity of the ATFs claim that semi-auto AKs and ARs are “favorites” of Mexican drug cartels. It seems unlikely at best that the Mexican cartels, which huge budgets, would bother buying semi-auto rifles, at considerable legal risk, in the US when they can simply get full-auto variants from their insiders in the Mexican army or simply order such guns on the international arms market. Anyway, moving along…

Firearms traffickers find it relatively easy to come to the U.S. and buy the high-powered weapons that fuel the billion-dollar drug-smuggling trade.

AKs and ARs are actually fairly intermediate in power. The .223 Remington cartridge, fired from the AR, is prohibited from use in deer and other forms of hunting in several states because it lacks the required energy to humanely kill such animals. The 7.62x39mm cartridge, fired from the AK, is similar in power to the .30-30 Winchester, which is on the low end of the power spectrum for hunting cartridges.
Rather, these rounds take a position in the power spectrum midway between pistol cartridges and full-power rifle loads.
Also note that it’s illegal for anyone, including “smugglers”, to purchase arms for export without government approval.
The article then proceeds to list the two reasons why “smugglers” like to buy guns in the US:

First, U.S. gun laws are rooted in the Constitution’s Second Amendment, which protects the rights of U.S. citizens to keep and bear arms. That make it easier to buy guns here than in Mexico.

Damn straight. The fact that Mexico has comparatively strict gun control and lots of violent crime might indicate that public safety is not directly proportional to gun control. Indeed, I’d say it’s a stretch to say they’re correlated at all.

Second, the principal agency assigned to stop criminal purchases, ATF, is grossly understaffed.

Perhaps. Why, then, is the ATF going after dealers for minor paperwork violations (like writing “N” instead of “No” on the required forms) rather than pursue actual criminals? Might it have something to do with the fact that hassling dealers over innocent mistakes is safe and easy, and confronting actual arms smugglers is likely to be a bit more difficult?

“If you wanted to design a system to supply gun traffickers, you would be hard-pressed to design one that would be easier than the U.S.,” said Kristen Rand, legislative director for the Violence Policy Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group that works to reduce firearms violence in the U.S.
The Violence Policy Center and other gun-control advocates say tougher gun laws are the solution.

Ah, right…the VPC, an organization that accepted over $4 million from the Joyce Foundation between 1996-2006 (( See http://www.joycefdn.org/Programs/GunViolence/GrantList.aspx )). You may recall that the Joyce Foundation sponsors a wide range of anti-gun groups that have routinely called for the banning of many common types of firearms.
As far as I’m aware, the VPC (and other Joyce-sponsored anti-gun groups) are full of bunk, and their “studies” have been thoroughly debunked and discredited.
The Star then interviews a rep from the NRA:

“We don’t need new gun laws in America to fix a problem in Mexico,” said Alexa Fritts, spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association. “Any laws that we impose, such as trying to outlaw certain types of firearms in the U.S., would only affect law-abiding Americans.”

Bingo. That sums it up pretty nicely.
The NRA rep continues with,

The NRA disputes the common claim that 90 percent of guns used in crimes in Mexico come from the U.S. It points out that fully automatic rifles, grenades and rocket launchers used by the Mexican cartels are illegal to sell in the United States.
“Those are not things they are walking out of U.S. gun shops with,” Fritts said.

While automatic guns, grenades, and rocket launchers are not illegal in the US, they are subject to a much stricter standard than common guns like AKs or ARs. I can’t fault the NRA for describing them as “illegal” when discussing the matter with a reporter who likely doesn’t know the first thing about firearms. It’s a lot less confusing than explaining the National Firearms Act and all the details that go along with it.
That said, the NRA rep is again right on the money: smugglers are not buying machine guns, grenades, and rocket launchers in the US and smuggling them to Mexico. Why would they spend $12,000 on one of the few legal M16s in the US when they can acquire them from the Mexican military for free, or from the international arms market for nominal cost?

The ATF contends that cartels get two-thirds of their weapons through either “straw purchases” ? they pay somebody with no criminal record to buy a gun from a licensed dealer ? or by buying from unlicensed dealers who are not required to perform background checks or record sales.

That seems to be dubious at best. It’s one thing for gangs in the US to buy from straw purchasers, as most gangs don’t need that many guns. Indeed, most of the guns US gangs have are stolen from law-abiding owners. It seems implausible that the cartels are getting the majority of their weapons from straw purchasers or private party sales in the US: to do so would involve such vast numbers of straw purchasers or private sellers as to be absurd.
Unless, of course, the ATF is classifying “Mexican soldiers who defect to the better-paying cartels and bring their military-issue weapons, often made in the US and exported to the Mexican military with government approval” as “unlicensed dealers,” but I doubt that.

As evidenced by the options at gun stores or gun shows, the cartels aren’t limited to hunting rifles and small handguns. Firearms used in crimes in Mexico are increasingly powerful and lethal, the [Government Accountability Office, -AZR] report found.
“Basically, you can outfit your own army, which the Mexican cartels have done,” Rand said.

Recall that AK and AR variants are considerably lower-powered than most hunting rifles. How, then, could “firearms used in crimes in Mexico [be] increasingly powerful”? Perhaps they look scary, and people assume that “scary looking” = “powerful”?
Also, recall that Ms. Rand is the VPC rep the paper interviewed. While the Mexican cartels may have equipped their own army, I haven’t seen any hard evidence linking the weapons the cartels use to US retail gun shops or private sales. Rand’s quote is a bit of a non-sequitur.

Until now, politicians have been too afraid of the gun lobby’s power to propose any changes to long-standing laws, said Garen Wintemute, a professor at the University of California-Davis who published a study on buying guns in the Southwest. “Politicians who think that something should be done about the issues are still terrified about actually doing something,” Wintemute said.

Something should be done, but it should be something well thought out, carefully considered, and tailored so as not to affect the rights of law-abiding citizens.
Also, not the mention of the “gun lobby” — that’s people like you and me. Everyday people who own firearms, and wish that their right to own such arms not be infringed. The fact that such a group of people has considerable influence in the halls of government are because we actually have a grassroots movement made up of real people, rather than Joyce Foundation-funded shills. It’s a bit less devious when you think about it that way.

But gun dealers say traffickers will find a way to get weapons, with or without more laws.
Cox, one of 6,700 federally licensed firearms dealers in the border states, said selling high-powered guns is no different from a car dealer selling a fast and powerful car. Society doesn’t blame the car dealer when a person buys a Ferrari, gets drunk and kills somebody, he said.

Other than the bit about AK and AR guns not actually being “high-powered,” the dealer is exactly right.

Tucked in beside the licensed gun dealers at the gun show are dozens of small booths run by private dealers. Some offer small collections of antiques or hunting rifles; others have high-powered arsenals.

Are these arsenals filled with the “high-powered” guns that we’ve previously established to not, in fact, be high-powered at all?

Licensed dealers must conduct background checks for each sale. Unlicensed dealers don’t have to do checks or record sales, which would make it easier to find a buyer if a gun is later used to commit a crime. And the law doesn’t restrict how many guns they can sell each year.

Oh no! No limit on the number of guns that a private person can sell? Whatever shall we do?
Oh, wait, we don’t limit the number of cars, kitchen knives, or other common, household objects that an individual can sell without a dealer’s license. Why should it be any different for a person selling other private property, like guns?
But wait…

The practice of letting people sell guns without a license was created so collectors of antique weapons could sell a few guns a year without having to become licensed, Wintemute said. The law forbids private dealers to sell guns “with the principal objective of livelihood and profit through the repetitive purchase and resale of firearms” but does not define that.
The ATF delivers “cease and desist” letters to unlicensed dealers who seem to be supporting themselves by selling firearms, said Bill Newell, ATF special agent in charge of the Phoenix office.

…there are actually limits imposed (though not strict numerical ones), and agent Newell seems to be on top of enforcing such limits. Ok, so it’s not really a problem after all.

Criminals don’t buy only at gun shows, but gun-control advocates and the ATF agree that shows are a particularly vulnerable area. The ATF estimates that at least 25 percent of sellers at gun shows may be unlicensed.

Actually, according to a study done in 1997 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 2% of guns used in crime were purchased from a gun show (( http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/guns.htm )). The study interviewed several thousand inmates in prison and asked them where they acquired their guns. While it may not address international smuggling of arms by drug cartel agents, I would be surprised if the cartels were interested in acquiring arms from gun shows: such shows tend to have a fairly heavy police presence and most people are alert for shady activity.
While 25% of vendors at gun shows may be unlicensed, the article didn’t specify if those vendors were selling firearms or more mundane things like hot dogs and beef jerkey. Obviously, a beef jerkey vendor needn’t possess a Federal Firearms License. Even if the 25% refers to gun vendors, remember that this includes people walking around with a “for sale” sign sticking out of the barrel of a rifle on their back, people who rented a table to sell a few of the guns from their inventory, and other perfectly legitimate, law-abiding people wanting to sell a gun or two to an interested buyer (it’s a pretty fair bet that people at gun shows are interested in guns, so it makes sense to want to sell things there).

Newell insists that his agency doesn’t oppose gun shows and says the ATF doesn’t send agents to every show. It does so based on tips about potential criminal purchases, he said.

Good to know.

The NRA’s Fritts said firearms traffickers know gun shows are teeming with law-enforcement members and avoid them, focusing on the black market.

Exactly.

John M. Hoffman, a Southern Arizona private gun dealer with a small collection, said he always asks for an Arizona driver’s license and never sells to someone he suspects could use the gun for criminal purposes. If the buyer doesn’t know anything about the gun he wants to buy, for instance, it’s likely he is buying it for someone else, Hoffman said.
“I feel like we do a pretty good job of policing ourselves,” he said.

That pretty much describes every private person I’ve ever seen selling a gun at a gun show; all legitimate, respectable people who obey the law. His advice about seeing what potential buyers know about a gun is good both for a crime-prevention strategy but also for basic safety — I wouldn’t sell a gun to a buyer unless they knew exactly how to use it.

Gun-control advocates want to “close the loophole” by requiring background checks on all gun sales, not just ones made by licensed dealers.

Something tells me that’s not all they want. Recall that “closing the loophole” would simply mean that all law-abiding sales would now be recorded and accessible by the government (and there are perfectly legitimate reasons for not wanting this to be the case), while criminals would still buy and sell guns illegally, much as they always have.

The Violence Policy Center proposes five other steps to slow gun trafficking to Mexico:

  • A ban on importing semi-automatic assault weapons.
  • Import restrictions on non-sporting firearms.
  • Release of ATF crime gun- trace data.
  • Aggressive investigation of licensed firearms dealers.
  • Laws to reduce firepower.

This list doesn’t seem to have anything whatsoever to do with gun trafficking to Mexico. How would laws that prohibit importing so-called “assault weapons” have anything to do with exporting guns to Mexico? Couldn’t the cartels simply import their arms directly, or perhaps through an intermediary in some other country with less police resources like, say Guatemala?
What’s a “non-sporting” firearm, and what would import restrictions do to stop trafficking to Mexico? AKs and ARs are some of the most popular, commonly-owned rifles in America, and for good reason: they’re durable, rugged, reliable, and (in the case of the AR) accurate. Both types of guns have widespread aftermarket support, tons of accessories and equipment, and are widely used in sporting events, competitions, and for recreational shooting. Again, this makes no sense in the context of exporting weapons to Mexico.
I fail to see how releasing gun trace data would have any effect on exporting guns to Mexico. The NRA has a great page, including cites to the Congressional Research Service, that details why releasing trace data would be a bad idea. The police already have full access to trace data for legitimate law-enforcement purposes, but the data is restricted from public release so as to avoid it being used for misleading purposes. Indeed, I suspect this is precisely why the VPC wants the data released.
What does the VPC mean by “laws to reduce firepower”? Lower magazine capacities? Less powerful ammunition? None of which would have any effect on criminals, but would only infringe on the rights of honest people. The 1994-2004 “Assault Weapons Ban” banned several guns by make and model, certain features on guns, and set limits on magazine capacity. The ban was ineffective, and did essentially nothing to reduce crime.

“When ATF tries to do its job, it puts its own life at risk,” Wintemute said. He added that the gun-rights lobby has helped keep ATF a low-priority agency.

Oh no, not the big, bad gun lobby! Whatever shall we do? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that there’s a fair number of Americans who? happen to like alcohol, tobacco, and firearms, and think that the heavy-handed approach of the ATF isn’t the best way of going about things. The ATF has very little impact on the day-to-day lives of most Americans, who are likely to support improvements for their local police department than some agency off in Washington.
There’s a lot of jobs that entail putting one’s life at risk. The ATF is hardly unique in that matter, and most people have little qualms about the ATF actually busting dangerous criminals. I, for one, object to the ATF hassling dealers for minor transgressions that might warrant a memo, not the threat of the revocation of their FFL. Perhaps people would object less to the ATFs work if they spent more time busting bad guys than hassling good guys.

There are 40 ATF agents in Arizona, the second-most-popular source for guns traced from crimes in Mexico, Newell said.
“I need at least double that to really stem the illegal flow of firearms to Mexico, and not only to Mexico but to violent criminals here,” he said.

I’ll bet that most of the ATF agents in Arizona spend most of their time conducting administrative tasks like doing routine checks on dealers, rather than leading the charge against gun runners. Newell’s claim that he needs 80 agents to “really stem the flow” of guns to Mexico and other criminals should be taken with a grain of salt: more agents equal a larger budget, which is generally welcomed by government employees. Can he cite some sort of direct correlation between an increased number of agents and a significant decrease in guns being diverted to criminals? If so, I might be more willing to accept his claims. For now, though, I remain skeptical.
There’s also no citation that actually identifies Arizona as the second-largest source of guns trace in Mexico. I’m curious to see such evidence.

The NRA’s Fritts said the group supports ATF efforts to enforce current laws and doesn’t oppose the Obama administration’s plan to curtail gun smuggling into Mexico. “What we don’t want to see,” she said, “is our freedoms weakened under the guise of crime reduction.”

Exactly. A solid conclusion to an article filled with bunk. There’s no evidence that increased gun control will have any effect on violent crime in this country, let alone violent crime in Mexico.
Fortunately, the commenters on the article have recognized it for the crap that it is, and have called the Daily Star on it. Given the nature of the Star, I doubt the reader comments will change a thing.

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