The Arizona Republic
The Arizona Republic
MEXICO CITY – Federal authorities do not have enough agents to regularly patrol gun shows, a major source for U.S. weapons used in Mexico’s drug wars, a top official said Thursday during a visit to the Mexican capital.
Mexican officials have complained about how easy it is to buy firearms from private, unlicensed sellers at such shows.
U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales vowed last week to crack down on such gun-running.
Top officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are in Mexico this week to talk strategy with their Mexican counterparts.
An undercover investigation conducted by the University of California, Davis and released this week said illegal “straw purchases” are rampant at gun shows in the United States.
U.S. firearms authorities simply don’t have the manpower to patrol gun shows for such activity, William Newell, head of the ATF’s Phoenix office, said in an interview with The Arizona Republic.
Mexican drug cartels typically use straw purchasers, U.S. citizens with clean records who can pass a federal background check, to buy AR-15 and AK-47 rifles from licensed dealers at gun stores or gun shows, authorities say.
Gun shows also attract private sellers who are allowed to sell from their own collections. In many states, no background check is required for those sales.
Newell said the agency often acts on tips about suspicious sellers at gun shows. But it doesn’t do spot checks for illegal activities.
“We don’t just arbitrarily pick out a gun show,” Newell said. “We only go in there if we have good information that a particular individual or group of individuals is going in there or specific information on a gun dealer that is selling off-paper.”
That’s unfortunate, said Garen Wintemute, a University of California professor of emergency medicine who wrote the study on gun shows. It was published this week in Injury Prevention, a scholarly journal for doctors and public health officials.
“They should absolutely be patrolling gun shows,” Wintemute said. “The illegal activity I saw was being conducted right out in the open. The bad guys don’t think the cops are there.”
Using a hidden camera and his cell phone’s voice mail to take notes, Wintemute visited 28 gun shows during 2005 and 2006. He documented 24 straw purchases where someone bought a gun for another person, along with three other probable cases. Some of these sales happened close to local, uniformed law enforcement officers, most of whom were attending the gun shows as customers, Wintemute said.
The study focused on gun shows in Arizona, California, Nevada, Texas and Florida. It found less illegal activity at gun shows in California, where state law requires all gun sales to be done through a licensed dealer or broker. The state also has a 10-day waiting period for gun sales, meaning guns bought at shows are typically transferred to a licensed store for later delivery, Wintemute said.
Newell said the ATF’s ability to intervene in gun sales is limited by federal law. But as drug wars become more violent on the Mexican side of the border, officials are putting more emphasis on trying to keep U.S. guns in the United States.
The ATF has opened new offices in cities near the border: Yuma, Ariz.; Laredo, Texas; Las Cruces, N.M.; and Chula Vista, Calif. Newell said in the past year, the U.S. government has given Mexico nine dogs trained to detect ammunition and explosives.
Since Jan. 1, the United States has trained 125 Mexican officers in tracing and identifying weapons.
The ATF also wants to give Mexican investigators access to its electronic gun-tracing system as well as a computer system that compares bullets and spent cartridges to identify weapons, Newell said.