U.S. Government Doesn't Know How Many U.S. Guns Are Confiscated from Mexican Drug Cartel

By Edwin Mora | April 2, 2009 | 7:06 PM EDT

Mexico drug arrest (AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) - While it is frequently reported that 90 percent of the guns used in drug-cartel violence in Mexico come from the United States, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives told CNSNews.com that the number is defined in a very strict way, referring only to gun information relayed by Mexican authorities to the ATF.
An ATF spokesperson explained to CNSNews.com that the bureau does not actually count, acquire, inspect, or warehouse the weapons confiscated in Mexico; and it does not know for sure how many guns in total have been confiscated by Mexican authorities, or how many confiscated guns may not have serial numbers.
Also, the ATF spokesperson said there are warehouses in Mexico full of confiscated guns, the serial numbers for which may or may not have been sent to the bureau.
“There are guns sitting in warehouses down there,” the ATF spokesperson told CNSNews.com. “We would not know that [overall number] because we are only limited to the weapons that they send to be traced.”
Hence, the estimate about the number of guns from the United States that end up being used in drug cartel violence is based solely on the weapons’ information sent by Mexican authorities to the ATF, said the spokesperson. These data include the serial number, manufacturer, and the make and model. 
Despite numerous queries by CNSNews.com, the ATF was unable to provide data on the total number of guns confiscated in drug-related violence and how many of those weapons are untraceable, because it bases its calculations on what the Mexican authorities communicate.
The tracing information provided by Mexican authorities is submitted through ATF’s eTrace program, an online tracing system designed to trace guns but also identify trends of the drug cartels trafficking guns into Mexico from the United States.
This system provides a venue “for submitting; retrieving, storing and querying all firearms trace-related information relative to your agency,” according to the ATF. It is also used “to monitor progress of traces and efficiently retrieve completed trace results in a real-time environment.”
“If they have incorrectly listed information on it or if there is no serial number to be found, then that [gun] may not be traceable,” the spokesperson added.
Nevertheless, a March 2009 report by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a pro-gun control group, stated that, according to the Mexican government’s attorney general’s office, Mexican officials seized 35,021 firearms between Dec. 1, 2006 and March 12, 2009.
The report also said that, “according to the ATF, more than 7,770 guns sold in the U.S. were recovered in crimes in Mexico” in 2008, a point the Brady Center sourced as coming from a March 15, 2009,  FoxNews.com story.
The FoxNews.com story says, “More than 7,770 guns sold in the U.S. were traced to Mexico last year, up from 3,300 in 2007 and roughly 2,100 in 2006, according to ATF statistics.”
Meanwhile, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, “In FY08, Mexico submitted more than 7,500 recovered guns for tracing, showing that most originated in Texas, Arizona and California.”
In other words, about 7,500 guns in 2008 and 3,300 guns in 2007, which totals 10,080 for that two-year period. That total, the number of guns traced back to the United States, does not equal 90 percent of 35,021 firearms – it equals 35 percent. 
But even that number is suspect because the ATF does not necessarily know how many guns have been confiscated by Mexican authorities or how many do not have serial numbers. The ATF also told CNSNews.com that out of the 90 percent figure, it did not know how many of those weapons were fully or semi-automatic.
“No, I don’t know that,” the spokesperson told CNSNews.com.
The 90 percent figure has been a subject of criticism for some gun advocates.
“These drug-cartels, they have RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades], they have armored helicopters, they are using hand-grenades and fully-automatic firearms … machine guns that can’t be purchased by citizens in the United States,” Rachael Parsons, spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association, told CNSNews.com.
Parsons pointed out that the “bigger number,” one to include untraceable guns, is missing from ATF’s 90 percent figure. 
“This number is very misleading, what’s missing here is the bigger number,” said Parsons. “The 90 percent is not representing all of the guns that are taken from the cartel. It’s only representing traceable guns.”  
In contrast, some gun control advocates support the ATF’s 90 percent figure.
“More than 90% of crime guns in Mexico come from the U.S.,” the previously mentioned March 2009 report by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence states.
“Mexico has strong gun laws that make it difficult for criminals to get guns there,” the report reads. 
The report blames “gun shows and gun shops willing to provide them [drug cartels] with all the firepower they can buy.”
Meanwhile, Michael Hammond, legal advisor for Gun Owners of America, suggested that the 90 percent figure is based off a “limited sample.”    
“As near as we can tell where it [90 percent] came from was in, I think, it’s Reynosa, Mexico, there was a seizure of 400 guns,” Hammond told CNSNews.com, adding that “of those 400, they said that they thought that 383 had come from the United States.”
On March 18, USA Today reported, “…U.S. investigators have traced 383 of the more than 400 weapons seized from a stash house in Reynosa, Mexico, to 11 states including Ohio, South Carolina, Virginia, Florida, Michigan and Connecticut, according to ATF records.”
Parsons and Hammond suggested that besides getting guns from the United States, Mexican drug cartels may be getting them from other countries and from Mexican officials.  
“The drug cartels aren’t just receiving U.S. guns – they are getting firearms from the middle-east, from Central-America and obviously none of these firearms are traceable to the U.S.,” the NRA spokeswoman told CNSNews.com.
“So they wouldn’t be involved in that 90 percent because they can’t trace them to the U.S. because they don’t originate here,” she said. “Not to be bold, but the number one contributor to the violence and to the drug cartels is the corruption within the Mexican government.”
Additionally, Hammond told CNSNews.com, “I think most of them are coming from other countries and from the Mexican police arsenal as well, as you know the police down there are reasonably corrupt.”
On March 15, The Los Angeles Times echoed Hammond's and Parsons' argument that the drug cartels’ arsenal may be coming from outside the United States.
“Traffickers have escalated their arms race [ranging from grenade launchers to anti-tank rockets] … most of these weapons are being smuggled from Central American countries or by sea, eluding U.S. and Mexican monitors …,” the Los Angeles Times reported.  
“A lot of the guns they are recovering are firearms that cannot be owned or purchased in the United States,” Parsons told CNSNews.com. “You can’t buy a hand grenade at a gun store. You can’t buy RPG’s at a gun store in Texas – you just can’t.”