New ATF Report: 70% of Crime Guns Come From U.S. – Is this Accurate?

Yesterday, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) published a report detailing trace information for firearms recovered in Mexico and submitted to the ATF for tracing.

The report showed that between 2007 and 2011 the Government of Mexico recovered and submitted more than 99,000 firearms to the ATF for tracing.  Of those submitted, more than 68,000 were manufactured in or imported from the United States.

The data also showed a trend in the types of crime guns recovered and submitting for tracing.  Over the 5-year time span, Mexican officials recovered with greater frequency certain types of rifles (AK and AR variants with detachable magazines) as compared with handguns.

gun-pileIn 2007, roughly 28 percent of the guns recovered were rifles.  That number jumped to 43 percent by 2011.  The shift to more destructive firepower mirrors the escalation of Mexico’s drug war, waged between cartel operatives and government forces.

In the wake of these new statistics, many pro-gun control politicians are clamoring for tougher U.S. gun laws to help staunch the perceived flow of guns south of the border.

In a press release, Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) said the new data “makes it very clear that we need to increase our efforts to starve the supply of American weapons that arm Mexico’s brutal drug trafficking organizations.”   Sen. Feinstein was the author of the provision that requires the ATF to release gun recovery data.  She included it as part of last year’s Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations bill.

Yet, before one jumps on the ban-rifles-now-bandwagon, he/she needs to recognize that, as with much of the information the government releases, there are certain limitations that must be addressed.  Here are five:

Stolen Guns

The trace data does not differentiate between guns that were stolen and those that were sold by Federal Firearm Licensees.

Intrepid reporter Katie Pavlich, of, asked ATF Special Agent John Hageman about whether or not the agency accounted for stolen guns while drafting the report:

I also asked why guns were not checked through the National Crime Information Center database to see if they were reported stolen before being counted in this data. It was determined that stolen guns are indeed counted in this data.

“I don’t have an accurate accounting for that [stolen guns],” Hageman said.

This is important because the implication is that licensed gun dealers are primarily to blame for the flow of guns into Mexico.   The number of stolen guns would certainly help clarify the causes of trafficked guns.

Sanctioned Sales

Another key piece of information omitted from the report is the number of traced guns that were sold by FFLs at the behest of the State Department.

Pavlich asked Special Agent Hageman about this critical breakdown:

In addition, I asked if ATF had any plans in the future to break down trace data into categories such as personal retail sales traces verses large sales traces from FFLs to foreign governments that are approved by the State Department.

The answer was no.

If the sales were approved by the government, how can FFLs be held accountable?

us sourced firearms recovered in mexico and submitted to atf for tracing

Fast and Furious

If the ATF failed to segregate between stolen guns and sanctioned sales in the trace data, what are the odds it included a caveat regarding the number of guns it let walk across the border in failed sting operations like Fast and Furious or Wide Receiver?

Pavlich asked about this as well:

I asked if guns trafficked into Mexico during the Obama Justice Department’s Operation Fast and Furious program were being counted in this data. Although Hageman wouldn’t openly admit Fast and Furious guns were being lumped in with this data, he responded by saying that any gun submitted for tracing in Mexico and traced back to the U.S. is counted.

Number of Guns Submitted

Republican Senator Charles Grassley also made a fair point that called into question the validity of the report.

“Thorough gun statistics are hard to come by and tricky to interpret.  The key to this data is that most of these guns can’t be traced to U.S. gun dealers.  And, some of those would actually trace back to the United States because of the federal government’s own gunwalking scandal. We also have to remember that the only guns Mexico is going to submit for tracing are guns they know are from the United States, which clearly paints an incomplete picture of the firearms found in the Mexico,” Grassley said in a press release.

In other words, did Mexico officials skew the data by only submitting guns they knew or thought to be U.S.-sourced?

One can certainly argue that Mexico’s president Felipe Calderó has a clear agenda to get U.S. legislators to pass gun control:

“The criminals have become more and more vicious in their eagerness to spark fear and anxiety in society,” Calderón said at the unveiling of his ‘No More Weapons’ sign visible from the U.S. border.

“One of the main factors that allows criminals to strengthen themselves is the unlimited access to high-powered weapons, which are sold freely, and also indiscriminately, in the United States of America.”

types of firearms recovered in mexico and submitted to atf for tracing

Time to Crime

The last point to be made is that he report does not include (at least to my knowledge) any time-to-crime statistics.

“Time-to-crime” (TTC) is the number of years that elapse between when a firearm was sold and when law enforcement recovered the firearm at a crime scene.  This latest ATF report uses the recovered date – not the date at which the gun was initially brought into the country – as the means by which to categorize the figures.

An ATF report obtained by the Washington Free Beacon revealed, “19,600 guns were recovered from crime scenes in Mexico and traced back to the U.S. between 2006 and 2010. Of those, 15,995 had a time-to-crime of three or more years, with an average of 15”

Putting aside the fact that this older trace report contradicts the numbers in the latest report (in terms of the volume of guns recovered), and focusing on the time-to-crime stat, it is important that we know how long those recovered firearms have been in Mexico.

If the average time-to-crime number is 15 years for those 68,000 traced guns, then claims about waves of illegal guns flowing across the border in recent years are patently false.


These are just five of the report’s shortcomings.  I’m sure there’re more.  Like with past ATF reports, there always seems to be contradictory information that eventually leaks out and undermines the integrity of the findings.

However, in the meantime, don’t be surprised if you hear “70% of Mexico’s crime guns are imported from the U.S.” spoken ad nauseum in the coming weeks.

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