The U.S. Justice Department has announced plans to cut arms trafficking into Mexico by monitoring the sale of assault rifles in border states, in the wake of a scandal over the "Fast and Furious" gun tracing operation.
According to Newsweek/The Daily Beast, which initially broke the story, the new rules could go into effect as early as next week. They will require gun stores to notify the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) when they sell two or more semi-automatic, magazine-loading weapons to an individual within a period of five business days.
According to a statement by Deputy Attorney General James Cole, the move is intended to crack down on the so-called “straw buyer phenomenon,” in which individuals with clean backgrounds purchase assault weapons in order to sell them to cartel middlemen. InSight Crime reported extensively on this trend in its GunRunners report.
Although the ATF is implementing an electronic system which will speed up background checks for handgun purchasers and make them easier to trace, the main target of the regulations seems to be the sale of assault weapons. "This new reporting measure -- tailored to focus only on multiple sales of these types of rifles to the same person within a five-day period -- will improve the ability of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to detect and disrupt the illegal weapons trafficking networks responsible for diverting firearms from lawful commerce to criminals and criminal organizations," Cole said.
Additionally, the department has mandated tougher penalties for straw buyers, hoping to deter people from aiding criminal groups.
The policy shift is expected to be met with major resistance by gun rights advocates, who claim that it amounts to a backdoor method of circumventing the Second Amendment without congressional approval. According to Politico’s Josh Gerstein, the National Rifle Association has vowed to sue the Obama administration the instant the ATF sends its first batch of information requests to gun dealers. However, they may have a difficult case on their hands, as the measures only catalogue purchases, and do not actually prevent them.
Another criticism of the new rules is that they come at a time when the ATF is facing heavy criticism for "Operation Fast and Furious," in which anti-drug officials allegedly allowed thousands of guns to “walk” over the border into Mexico, in an attempt to trace them back to known cartel members. When this was made public, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) began a series of congressional investigations into the operation.
At the most recent of these, as Bloomberg reports, acting ATF director Kenneth Melson admitted to congressional investigators that some of the Mexican cartel members his agency targeted were paid informants of the Federal Buerau of Investigation and Drug Enforcement Agency, meaning that some of them could have potentially used tax payer money to purchase weapons illegally and smuggle them across the border for criminal purposes. While Senator Grassley and Representative Issa have expressed shock over this revelation, it’s impossible to know how frequently it occurred, and it is unclear how this differs from general “sting operation” tactics carried out by law enforcement. Still, the sensationalist announcement is sure to provoke further outrage amongst the gun control lobby, and provide further ammunition to those opposed to stronger gun control measures along the border.
Despite the storm of criticism facing the ATF, some in Congress have recognized the role that U.S. weapons play in fueling Mexico's drug war. Last month, three U.S. senators released a report, citing ATF data, which found that of the 29,284 firearms recovered by officials in Mexico in 2009 and 2010, 20,504 (70 percent) came from the United States. To remedy this, the group has called for a much stricter set of federal gun control regulations, endorsing a national law requiring background checks for all firearms purchases.