To the average American gun-owner, Mexico’s supposed gun corridor should be of grave concern; not only is it embarrassing that guns bought up here find there way into the hands of killers down there, but the negative press and political pressure engendered by the illegal practice could be detrimental to gun rights stateside. After a probing, two-year investigation and despite a 2003 Congressional decision that keeps the identities of U.S. dealers who’s weapons are found at Mexican crime scenes a secret, The Washington Post has deciphered the names of the top 12 U.S. dealers of guns traced to Mexico.
Without rival, the state that is the source of the most guns taken off Mexican drug commandos is Texas. It is also home to the majority of the offending gun shops, eight on the list of 12. Three more are in Arizona and there is a one, lone shop in California. Within the Lone Star State, the city with the most guns linked to Mexican crime scenes and syndicates is Houston. And within Houston city limits no single dealer had been more conspicuous in his habit for letting his guns slip across the border than Bill Carter, an accusation levied on the 76-year old Houston businessman in Washington Post’s yearlong inquiry.
Over the past 50 years, Carter has been the proprietor of four “Carter’s Country Stores” dotting the Houston metropolitan area—two of the four can be found on the Washington Post list. In the past two years, a whopping 115 guns from his stores have been recovered in Mexico. According to Dewey Webb, a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the main reason Houston eclipses other regions in Mexican gun sales is the shear number of gun shops in the city. This enables gun peddlers to trolling more discretely when attempting to purchase guns for illegal export. There are 300 gun shops in Houston alone with a total of 3,800 gun retailers in Texas.
It’s important to not jump to conclusions. Though all of the stores on the list showed substantial traces of “crime scene guns” to their stores from Mexico, a high number of connections is only circumstantial evidence and does not necessarily indicate illegal activity. Location, sales volume and the store’s typical clientele could also explain the high occurrence of crime scene guns from any one shop. For example, it is important to keep in mind that Carter’s Country is the largest independently owned gun retailer in the region. Pending litigation, Mr. Carter refused to comment.
During an investigation of 335 variously seized guns, investigators discovered 50 were purchased at three Carter’s stores. An unnamed employee phoned the ATF when a trafficker placed a cash order for eight Bushmaster .223-caliber rifles on May 12, 2007. Carter’s sales records had been already been subpoenaed in 2006.
Mexico seriously restricts civilian gun ownership and, in reality, Mexican drug cartels have always had to turn either north or south in order to equip their armies. And just like the drug and “coyote” trails crisscrossing the Rio Grande, gun-running paths have seen use for over a half a century: firearms have always crossed the border to end up in the hands of criminals as well as citizens simply seeking protection.
Where our past and present gun smuggling operations diverge is both in the quality and the quantity of our product and the escalating and shocking acts of violence for which gangsters are using these guns. According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in concurrence with other Federal authorities, the number of high-powered rifles finding their way into Mexico—guns like AK-47s, AR-15s and .50-caliber sniper rifles—is on the rise. Reports claim more than 60,000 U.S. guns of have been recovered in Mexico in the past four years playing a supporting role in some 30,000 deaths.
The National Rifle Association hotly disputes ATF reports that claim 80 percent to 90 percent of the weapons seized in Mexico are first sold in the United States. Rather, the NRA contends guns come to Mexican drug cartels from Central America and renegade Mexican soldiers, moonlighting as cartel henchmen. “To suggest that U.S. gun laws are somehow to blame for Mexican drug cartel violence is a sad fantasy,” said Chris Cox, executive director of the NRA Institute for Legislative Action.
The ATF still believes the biggest factors are the number of less than scrupulous U.S. dealers along the border and back in 2006, ATF initiated Project Gunrunner – a 385 agent strong program that has coordinated over 1,000 inspections along the border and seized more than 400 firearms.
But a recent Justice Department report denotes that prosecuting crooked gun shops has been futile and most gun shops implicated in trafficking cases never see charges filed against them. In the entire Houston investigation, only two dealers have lost their licenses to sell guns. Much of the difficulty lies in what both gun dealers and law officers identify as “straw purchases,” or when a person buys for someone who is prohibited from owning a gun. “If you’re a gun dealer and you see a 21- or 22-year-old young lady walk in and plop down $15,000 in cash to buy 20 AK-47s, you might want to ask yourself what she needs them for,” said William Newell, the ATF special agent in charge in Phoenix. “If she says, ‘Christmas presents,’ technically the dealer doesn’t have to ask for more.”