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Draft DOJ Report Faults BATFE, But Not Gun Control

Friday, September 24, 2010

A draft report prepared by the Justice Department Inspector General's Evaluation and Inspections Division calls into question the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives' (BATFE) performance in carrying out the mandates of its Project Gunrunner program, established in 2007 to combat the trafficking of firearms to Mexico. The report also contradictorily suggests that BATFE's ability to meet the program's objectives might be enhanced by federal laws requiring the filing of multiple sales reports on long guns, and requiring some or all private sales of firearms to be screened by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).

One contradiction is that the report complains that BATFE's "focus remains largely on inspections of gun dealers and investigations of straw purchasers, rather than on higher-level traffickers, smugglers, and the ultimate recipients of the trafficked guns." But requiring multiple sales reports on long guns and requiring private sales to go through NICS would mainly facilitate even more investigations of straw purchasers. And there's another contradiction. If, as some claim, straw purchasers are the primary source of firearms bought in the U.S. for resale to the cartels, and that straw purchasers can defeat NICS checks, the smuggling of firearms from the U.S. to Mexico can't be significantly reduced by requiring that private sales be subject to NICS. After all, a straw purchaser who can pass a NICS check can pass it regardless of whether the gun is being bought from a dealer or someone who is not a dealer.

Also, BATFE doesn't follow up on most of the multiple sales reports it receives on handguns, so there's little reason to think it would do things any differently with reports on long guns. Theoretically, more multiple sales reports and NICS checks would make it easier for BATFE to conduct commercial record traces on firearms, but as the report points out, "most trace requests that are submitted to ATF from Mexico are considered 'unsuccessful.'" Only 27 percent of traces between 2007 and 2009, on firearms seized in Mexico, were successful.

BATFE traces are of such dubious value that, the report notes, "Mexican law enforcement authorities do not view gun tracing as an important investigative tool. . . . One Mexican official stated that U.S. officials talk of eTrace as if it is a 'panacea' but that it does nothing for Mexican law enforcement. An official in the Mexico Attorney General's office told us he felt eTrace is 'some kind of bad joke.'"

To its credit, the draft report correctly points out that Mexico requests BATFE to trace only about one quarter of the firearms that it seizes from the cartels, a fact which implies that a significant share of the cartels' guns come from countries other than the United States. To put it simply, if the Mexican police recover a machine gun with Communist Chinese markings on it, they know it didn't come from the U.S., and they are not going to waste time requesting a trace from BATFE. The Mexicans are interested in squashing the cartels, not in racking up trace numbers to spruce up BATFE press releases.

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