Guns in Mexico: Hard to Buy, Easy to Smuggle

Unlike the United States, Mexico has strict legal restrictions on gun ownership, with most legitimate sales processed through one tiny store on a military base on the periphery of Mexico City. However, Mexico is awash in guns, thanks mainly to the criminal cartels and lax US gun laws. What has become increasingly apparent is that the same traffickers who move drugs north also move guns south, according to federal law-enforcement officials.

The purchase and movement of firearms has become increasingly sophisticated and complex as traffickers change tactics to evade law enforcement. Rather than passing through a single middleman, guns may change hands four or five times or more en route to a Mexican cartel member. Many traffickers prefer to tap small-time buyers for a handful of purchases at a time. The odds are in traffickers’ favor as they hide illicit cargo amid more than 100,000 border crossings a day at El Paso.

Gun purchases can be made using a variety of individuals as “straw purchasers.” These people, who have no criminal record and legally buy firearms, are often threatened and paid token sums. There have been cases of American girlfriends (legal purchasers) of gun trafficers who are coerced into purchasing the weapons which may be held for weeks at their home to confuse any surveillance. Then the weapons are smuggled into Mexico.

Government officials say that ATF agents struggle to stem the trade of a product that is legal and enjoys constitutional protection in the U.S., bolstered by a pro-gun-rights ruling last year by the Supreme Court. People can buy dozens of firearms legally and then sell them later, so long as the guns are for personal use. Large-scale dealing in firearms requires a federal license, but the dividing line between such ventures and smaller-scale traders is hard to draw.

Mr. Bouchard, a former ATF official says, “The straw-purchase statute is very vague. You have to prove the person went in with the intention of deceiving the government and the gun dealer by saying they were buying for themselves but were really buying for someone else.” Buyers can easily explain their actions even if they buy and sell firearms over short periods of time, Bouchard says.

Gun-rights groups are lobbying against a proposed ATF regulation that would require gun dealers to report sales of multiple rifles and other long-guns, matching regulations already on the books for sales of pistols. The ATF says the regulations would help it to keep up with shifting cartel preferences for high-powered rifles.

Contrary to a GAO report, Wayne LaPierre, NRA Vice President, says there’s ample evidence to indicate that the vast majority of weapons used by drug cartels in Mexico come not from the U.S., but from Russia and China and via Guatemala and other Central American countries. He suggests that the Obama administration should improve enforcement of existing laws, rather than proposing new laws.

According to a Government Accountability Office report more than 20,000, or 87 percent, of firearms seized by Mexican authorities and traced over the past 5 years originated in the U.S. The Brady Center reached many of the same conclusions in their report “Exporting Gun Violence: How Our Weak Gun Laws Arm Criminals in Mexico and American” which you can find at

Toni Wellen is the chair of the Santa Barbara Coalition Against Gun Violence. She lives in Carpinteria.