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Study Aims For Fuller Picture of Cross-Border Arms Trafficking

March 22, 2013 2:25 p.m.


Topher McDougal, Lead Author, Asst. Professor Joan B. Kroc School for Peace Studies

Related Story: Study Aims For Fuller Picture of Cross-Border Arms Trafficking


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: Mexico has some of the most restrictive gun laws in the world, and yet gun violence in Mexico has been surging in recent years. A new report tackles the murky world of illegal gun sales across the border from the U.S. to Mexico and raises questions about our responsibility for the growing gun violence over there. We'll talk to an author of the report and with a reporter who's been covering the border issues for years. First of all, Topher McDougal is researcher at the university of San Diego's Trans-Border Institute.

MCDOUGAL: Thanks very much for having me.

CAVANAUGH: So Topher, this report has got some pretty alarming figures about the number of guns that you suggest would be -- could be being smuggled across the border illegally. What did you find?

MCDOUGAL: Well, we made a number of different calculations. And we made some low end, midrange, and high-end calculations. In the midrange, we suggest that as many as 250,000 firearms may be bought, purchased in the U.S. with the intention offing smuggled across the border. And reports about 2.2% of the domestic demand for firearms in the U.S.

CAVANAUGH: That's about a quarter of a million guns. Has that gun up a lot since a decade ago?

MCDOUGAL: Yes, absolutely. The percentage of U.S. guns that are economically dependent on the trade according to our models has been slowing rising from anywhere in the mid-thirties during the 1990s to up around 45-47% in the 2010-2012 period that we analyzed.

CAVANAUGH: So it's a rapidly escalating situation. How did you gather the data? Illegal gun smuggling isn't easy to track.

>> No, absolutely. We had to go about it in a sideways sort of fashion, come in through the side door as it were. We departed from a lot of previous studies which had taken this accounting method, counting guns that are seized at the border which of course begs the question of what proportion of the total that represents. And what we tried to do was model the total demand by predicting the number of gun stores, outlets, retailers for guns as a function of distance from the border. And then what we tried to do was model domestic determinants of demand, isolate those, and subtract them out from the model. And what was left was attributable to --

CAVANAUGH: What gets through.

MCDOUGAL: Right. It's not necessarily what gets through. It's what the total demand of what is purchased for trafficking. A portion of that is obviously seized. So we know that somewhere around 37,000 guns in 2009 were seized by a combination of U.S. and Mexican authorities.

CAVANAUGH: Let's talk more about how many of them actually get seized and what this means. But I want to go to a reporter of our Fronteras desk who covers these issues.

(Audio Recording Played)

CAVANAUGH: Thanks so much for joining us.

MARIZCO: My pleasure.

CAVANAUGH: You've been writing about violence in Mexico and along the border for a long time. How big an issue is illegal gun smuggling from the U.S. into Mexico?

MARIZCO: Well, it's emerged as one of the most prevalent issues on the border right now as far as politics, as far as the violence we've seen situations where people have tried to buy stinger missiles to smuggle down into Mexico. We have had people just two years ago, I remember I was in Nogales, and there was a bus driver who had been cut with 12,000 rounds of ammunition and boxes on the front seize of an otherwise empty buses headed toward Sinaloa. We're also running into situations where the guns have become not just part of the debate but part of the culture of the violence that now permeates the border.

CAVANAUGH: Just how strict are Mexican gun laws compared to gun laws in the United States?

MARIZCO: Mexico has some of the strictest gun laws I've ever heard of. The regulation for anything beyond a .38-caliber makes it so it's almost nonexistent to be able to own one. You need to have permissions from military and ministry of defense, and the classifications for weapons are so regulated and so restricted that in the end, it becomes not impossible for people to own guns by any means, but they know exactly who has them and where they're going with them.

CAVANAUGH: Impossible to own them legally, at least. So does the finding in this report surprise you?

MARIZCO: The findings were really interesting. What they have said, and we've talked about this in the past, is that nearly 50% of these gun stores rely on Mexico to some extent or other for their sales. About three years ago, there was a report that came out in the Washington post that looked at the proximity to highways in the border states. And where the gun shops were located on those highways. Again suggesting that Mexico was if not a purposeful target customer or consumer, then one that certainly proved to be useful to the gun stores. And then of course this suggests an entire culture of nonregulation of who's buying these guns and taking them down. Of

CAVANAUGH: So what are the current gun laws in the United States aimed at curbing gun trafficking across the border?

MARIZCO: Well, you know, some of the biggest arguments that the bureau of alcohol, tobacco, and firearm, and right now in the Senate have always centered on the fact that there is no real federal firearms trafficking statute. Instead what they have done is gone after what we call straw purchases. Guys who go in professoring to buy a gun for themselves, and then sell it or give it to somebody else who couldn't buy one, presumably a convict, a Mexican national, you get the idea. So in the end, what we have is an area of weapons that are heading down to Mexico with no real American federal law built to stop that.

CAVANAUGH: But I understand that the proposed gun control bill in Washington would include a provision that would tackle weapons trafficking. Can you tell us about that?

MARIZCO: Yes, absolutely. Finally we're getting to a point, and we're going to have to see how this all ends up evolving. There's so many statutes that are being presented right now in Congress that how they end up looking in the end is going to be different than they were presented. But yes, the idea was to finally create some kind of firearm statute that would affect the country as a whole, finally have a federal firearms trafficking law. And the situation right now is going to raise a little bit of ire in some of the locations along the border, I'm thinking Arizona, Texas, who have always said that they have been unfairly singled out as they're doing things legally, by the book, and that there's enough laws that are already in place that we don't need to create more, we just need to enforce what's out there. It's not a completely invalid point. One of the biggest is a regulation of federal firearms licenses. And I can't tell you how many gun store owners I've talked to over the years who have said well, I keep track, I keep a careful documentation of who's buying guns out of my store. But either nobody comes looking for those documents or they come looking for really old documents from two years ago. And then of course the bureau of alcohol, tobacco and firearms says we don't have enough agents along the border to monitor the 7,000 stores, we're completely overwhelmed. So it's going to be interesting where this law finally takes shape.

CAVANAUGH: Yes. Now the report does suggest that U.S. authorities intercept only about 2% of the guns, whereas the Mexican authorities intercept somewhere around 12%. These are all rough figures. Why do you think it's so much less intercepted by U.S. enforcement agencies?

MCDOUGAL: Well, what you think about who's actually down there, in 2009, customs and border protection finally started a year-round patrol called the outbound inspection teams. They are of course the guys that are lining up and looking for money and weapons and are heading south. And I've always found it really interesting that while the money issue keeps coming up, they keep making these hundreds of thousands of dollars seizures, guns are almost never confiscated, and the only thing that I can think in that regard is that the guns aren't being taken through ports of entry as readily. They don't need to be. Why would somebody who's smuggling weapons want to go through the port of entry when they can go through so many empty miles of terrain to bring their guns into Mexico? So many of these guys, talking about the bandits, the smugglers, the narco mules who live between the ports of entry, they don't need to use those gates. Whereas Mexico on the other hand, every single highway leading from the border down into Mexico is federally regulated, federally controlled. And this would suggest to me why the Mexicans are capturing so many more guns than the Americans.

(Audio Recording Played)

CAVANAUGH: That was Michel Marizco, a fronteras desk correspondent. Topher, you're one of the authors of this study. And you conclude from the study that not only are there a quarter million guns going across the border, but how much money is being changed hands? How much to the U.S. gun dealers?

MCDOUGAL: From our estimates about 2.2% of the U.S. gun market is represented by this demand from south of the border. And that translates into roughly $127†million of revenues for U.S. gun retailers, and ultimately for manufacturers as well.

CAVANAUGH: I understand part of the problem may be to do with the military in Mexico as well. Is that part of the problem too?

MCDOUGAL: Well, are we have not tried to link up our data with data on homicide rates from south of the border. That is something that we would like to do when we expand this study, to make the link a little bit clearer between U.S. gun regulations, perhaps even on a state by state basis and homicide rates across the border.

CAVANAUGH: I wanted to ask you the same question I of course asked Michel, only about 2% of the guns are accepted by U.S. authorities. Why would you say their rests are so ineffective?

MCDOUGAL: Well, I think that one reason is that it's never been made illegal to traffic arms out of the U.S., it's illegal to traffic them into the U.S., so it's illegal to traffic them to Mexico under federal Mexican law. And hopefully in the future, this will be adopted as part of the anti-trafficking legislation that is being looked at in Congress right now. But another reason is that U.S. authorities don't really check the weights of the cars that go outbound from the United States. The Mexican authorities do. They have systems which will identify the make and model of your car, how many people are in it, generate an approximate weight for this, and then say is your car significantly heavier than would be suggested by this? And of course one of the problems with that is that an AK-47 only weighs about 5†pounds. So you're not going to be capturing a few guns here and there. You might capture a large load, especially of ammunition which would be quite heavy.

CAVANAUGH: Now, some people might say we have enough trouble in this country regulating guns and illegal trading. Why is it so important that we focus more on the boarder?

MCDOUGAL: Well, I think that one of the reasons that this focus is important is because it helps us you to recast the gun debate from one that is really an issue of domestic rights to one that is an issue of international responsibilities. We've heard John Kerry and his first speech as secretary of state, saying there's nothing foreign about foreign policy. And I think that the reverse of the coin is also true. There's nothing domestic about domestic policy in this day of global trades. And this study is hopefully point that out, that our domestic violence policy in effect causes some costs to be externalized from the U.S. to Mexico.

CAVANAUGH: And your report does suggest some of the things that you think could be done to stem the tide, as it were. What are they?

MCDOUGAL: Well, well major thing that we could do fairly easily is to beef up our background check system so that we could actually look for straw purchaser profiles. This is one thing that even if we do adopt the legislation currently being considered and outlaw straw purchasing, we have no tool for identifying straw purchasers. These are people who by definition have no backgrounds that would raise alarm bells. So what we would like to do ultimately is design the system that would look at what a straw purchaser profile looks like. Another possibility would be just simply to keep disaggregated data on gun purchases. Right now, the ATF is prohibited from keeping any data from gun purchases in any systematic form.

CAVANAUGH: Part of the problem of getting a handle on gun sales altogether.

MCDOUGAL: Right. And part of the reason for this report, and having to figure the number of federal license retail rather than the actually number of sales. So we had to come into this from this side door just because there is no data on gun purchases.

CAVANAUGH: So it sounds like what your report has done is begun to put some numbers on the problem that everybody knows is a big problem that nobody has been quite able to define. So I've heard Michel was saying that it's a good beginning.

MCDOUGAL: Yeah, I hope it has opened up a conversation. I dong that the methods we've used are fairly robust for what they are. But also they could obviously always be improved. I do think that the previous report in 2010 from Colby Goodman and Michel Marizco estimated that somewhere between 10-20% of guns were being seized at the border. We came out with about 50%. So from that point of view, there's a certain convergence here.

CAVANAUGH: All is not getting better.


CAVANAUGH: Okay, thank you so much for joining us.

MCDOUGAL: Thank you very much for having me.