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Report: Gun running to Mexico remains widespread

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As the gun control debate swirls around issues like background checks and mental health, a new study reveals that gun running into Mexico remains a large-scale problem.

In their report, titled "The Way of the Gun," researchers at the University of San Diego's Trans-Border Institute estimated that as many as 253,000 firearms were purchased in the United States from 2010 to 2012 for the sole purpose of being trafficked across the border into Mexico. The figure is nearly three times the amount (about 88,000 firearms) trafficked between 1997 and 1999, when the federal assault weapons ban was in place.

The Mexican government has long held that lax U.S. gun laws have facilitated the illegal flow of weapons south. Officials say more than 70,000 people have died in cartel-related violence there since 2006, although some human rights groups claim the figure is closer to 100,000. A 2012 Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives report said that about 68,000 of the 99,000 weapons at crime scenes in Mexico since 2007 were traced back to the U.S. The firearms were either manufactured here or legally imported and subsequently smuggled.

The Trans-Border Institute researchers also estimate that about 2.2 percent of weapons purchased in the U.S. are bound for Mexico.

"These findings suggest that the United States is a significant, albeit unintentional, contributor to the global black market in arms and ammunition," writes report co-author Topher McDougal. "It underlines the point that with domestic gun rights come responsibilities. The analysis also suggests that the United States has been negligent in preventing illegal firearms trafficking."

Included in the study are recommendations to stymie the flow of weapons, including universal background checks and eliminating cash transactions for gun purchases in border states.

There are no specific records of individual gun sales because the ATF is limited in the data it can collect. The Trans-Border researchers reached their estimates by creating a "demand curve" that uses various pieces of geographic information and county-level data on U.S. gun sellers.

Critics have long disputed the tracing figures that have been used to determine the origins of weapons. They allege that Mexicans, in an attempt to make the U.S. appear more complicit, only submit weapons for tracing that they know have origins here.

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McDougal didn't refute that, but he said there could be a less nefarious reason.

"The fact is they have a huge backup of arms submitted for tracing," he said. "So Mexican authorities have a good reason to submit only guns that are traceable."

He added that the data on sales isn't exact because of current reporting restrictions.

"We often get the question about how many guns have been sold and there is not a way to answer that because there are no statistics that are collected," said Franceska Perot, the public affairs officer for the ATF field office in Houston, which has jurisdiction over most of Texas' border with Mexico. "The gun dealers who sell the guns keep the federal forms at their premises. Nothing is sent to ATF, so we have no idea."

The agency is also without a permanent director, and has had the same amount of staff for several years, despite the growth of other law enforcement agencies within the Department of Justice. Advocates for gun control say that lack of additional resources is a result of the political volatility surrounding the Second Amendment. Critics have fired back, pointing to issues like the "Fast and Furious" scandal, in which federal agents allowed thousands of illegally purchased weapons to end up in the hands of alleged Mexican criminals.

Since the botched operation, attempts have been made to curb the illegal flow of weapons by increasing reporting requirements. In August 2011, the ATF enacted a rule that requires federal dealers to report to the bureau when they sell two or more long rifles to the same person within a five-day period in a southern border state. The policy is already in place for handgun buyers across the country. A San Antonio gun broker, 10-Ring Precision, filed suit to stop the rifle-reporting requirement, alleging the border states were subject to unfair burdens that would lead to economic harms.

Mexico has tried its own hand at curbing the flow of weapons. In January, the Mexican Congress approved a measure to formally ask the U.S. Senate to create a gun registry in the four southern border states. Ricardo Alday, a spokesman for the Mexican Embassy in the U.S., said there has been no movement by either country on that measure.

'Texas Will Lead the Charge'

Tuesday's announcement by the United Nations General Assembly to implement a global arms trade treaty — and its subsequent praise from the U.S. State Department — drew a swift reaction from Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott.

In a statement on the treaty, Secretary of State John Kerry said it "will establish a common international standard for the national regulation of the international trade in conventional arms." The statement added that the treaty would reduce the risk of international weapons transfers that perpetuate crimes overseas.

Though Kerry's statement also says that the treaty applies only to international trade and that nothing in it "could ever infringe on the rights of American citizens under our domestic law or the Constitution, including the Second Amendment," Abbott told President Obama in a letter that he should reject it if it's ratified by the U.S. Senate.

"The Arms Trade Treaty agreed to today by the United Nations is a threat to Americans' Constitutional liberty," Abbott wrote in the letter dated Tuesday. "I urge you to reject that treaty. If you sign it, and if the U.S. Senate ratifies the treaty, Texas will lead the charge to have the treaty overturned in court as a violation of the U.S. Constitution."

Abbott says the treaty would trample on Second Amendment rights and potentially keep U.S. citizens at the mercy of "international bureaucrats" who are not accountable to people here.

"Agreeing to the treaty does more than trample Second Amendment rights," Abbott wrote. "It also threatens to erode all liberties guaranteed to Americans in the Constitution by establishing the precedent that the UN has some level of authority to govern our lives."

TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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Graphic by Todd Wiseman/Texas Tribune

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