By Jacob Sullum, Reason Senior Editor
Two weeks ago (as Radley Balko noted), a Fox News story by William La Jeunesse and Maxim Lott debunked
the commonly heard factoid that 90 percent of the firearms used by
Mexican drug traffickers come from American dealers. In a front-page story about gun smuggling on Tuesday, The New York Times modified
the claim, saying "90 percent of the 12,000 pistols and rifles the
Mexican authorities recovered from drug dealers last year and asked to
be traced came from [gun] dealers in the United States." But according
to La Jeunesse and Lott, that's not quite right either:
2007-2008, according to ATF Special Agent William Newell, Mexico
submitted 11,000 guns to the ATF for tracing. Close to 6,000 were
successfully traced—and of those, 90 percent—5,114 to be exact,
according to testimony in Congress by William Hoover—were found to have
come from the U.S.
"But in those same two years, according to the Mexican government, 29,000 guns were recovered at crime scenes.
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other words, 68 percent of the guns that were recovered were never
submitted for tracing. And when you weed out the roughly 6,000 guns
that could not be traced from the remaining 32 percent, it means 83
percent of the guns found at crime scenes in Mexico could not be traced
to the U.S."
Hence La Jeunesse and Lott's conclusion
that "only 17 percent of guns found at Mexican crime scenes have been
traced to the U.S." Which sounds a lot less impressive than 90 percent.
the percentage matter? Rhetorically, yes, because gun controllers argue
that more restrictions should be placed on American gun buyers
to reduce smuggling of firearms to Mexico. The Times
story implicitly makes an argument for heavier regulation of long gun
sales and requiring private sellers to do background checks (a.k.a.
closing the "gun show loophole"). It also suggests that the sheer
number of retailers, such as the "1,500 licensed gun dealers in the
Houston area, easily accessible to Mexico," is a problem.
The story does acknowledge skepticism that limiting Americans' gun rights will reduce violence in Mexico:
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billions in profits from illegal drugs, the cartels can easily obtain
weapons on the black market in other countries, [NRA Executive Vice
President Wayne] LaPierre and many gun dealers argue. "The cartels have
the money to get guns wherever they want," said Charles Fredien, the
owner of Chuck's Gun in Brownsville, Tex., on the border "They have
grenades, don't they? They don't buy grenades here."
might think the persistence of the drug traffickers' main business,
which consists of transporting and selling products that are entirely
illegal on both sides of the border, would give pause to those who
think they can block the flow of guns to the cartels. Instead, the
violence fostered by drug control feeds demands for equally futile gun
In February I noted
Attorney General Eric Holder's call for renewing the federal "assault
weapon" ban in response to Mexico's prohibition-related violence. The
Cato Institute's David Rittgers detects
a rhetorical shift from "assault weapons," which was always an
arbitrary and fuzzy category, to "military-style weapons," which he
says is potentially "a term inclusive of all modern firearms in a
back-door attempt to enact a new gun control scheme."
Balko points out that President Obama yesterday used the erroneous 90
percent figure during his visit to Mexico, where he reiterated his
support for an "assault weapon" ban. "Some 90 per cent of the guns
recovered in Mexico come from the United States," Obama said, repeating a claim made by Mexican President Felipe Calderon.