New legislation in the United States seeks to close several loopholes that have helped arms trafficking proliferate. But can it really help reduce the number of illegal weapons flowing south to Mexico and the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean?
The Frame or Receiver Final Rule will take effect in the United States on August 24. Announced in April, the executive action seeks to crack down on "ghost guns," and its implementation will begin on the heels of the more expansive and binding Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. US President Joe Biden signed it into law in June, expressing hope that it would limit gun violence by addressing a loophole that allowed cracking down on unregulated private sales and targeting straw buyers, a term referring to individuals who buy weapons on behalf of those who cannot legally buy their own.
However, this legislation has the potential for impact far beyond the United States. Arms trafficking is one of the main drivers of Latin America and the Caribbean’s consistently rising homicide rates as it makes high-caliber weapons available to civilians.
Below, InSight Crime explores three potential developments from these new laws and outlines what may be the most significant remaining challenges to stem arms trafficking to Latin America and the Caribbean.
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Raised Penalties for Straw Buyers
In May 2022, a court in Texas sentenced Charles Anthony Lecara, alias “Bloodhound,” to more than 7 years in prison for leading an arms trafficking ring based out of San Antonio, Texas. The ring supplied unidentified "Mexican cartels" with rifles and pistols.
On the US side, Lecara's network consisted of people with clean records who purchased “firearms popular with the cartels” on his instruction. They then lied on the paperwork, saying the guns were for their own personal use. Lecara would collect the weapons from these “straw buyers" and stash them before sending them off to his contacts in Mexico.
According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), a large number of the illegal firearms that end up in the hands of Mexican cartels are procured in the United States by straw purchasing networks such as Lecara's.
“Straw-buying in the US is the most common channel [of trafficking arms to Mexico] as most straw buyers are not going to get caught," John Lindsay-Poland, an activist who coordinates the Stop US Arms to Mexico project, told InSight Crime.
Until recently, straw buyers usually only faced probation if they were caught, which made them highly useful to traffickers like Lecara, according to research carried out by journalist Ioan Grillo. In his recent book, Blood Gun Money, Grillo found that straw buyers have typically been paid between $50 and $100 for each gun.
The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act seeks to up the pressure on straw buyers. It allocates more resources to the ATF to investigate arms trafficking and creates specific criminal offenses related to straw buying. For example, if the gun is used in a serious crime, the straw buyer could face between 15 and 25 years in prison.
A Gun Dealer Is a Gun Dealer
In August 2020, Florida authorities flagged a private plane for a routine customs check. They found an arsenal on board, including assault rifles, shotguns, semi-automatic pistols, and over 63,000 rounds of ammunition. They arrested two Venezuelan nationals who had filed a fake flight plan to St. Vincent and the Grenadines while in reality heading for Venezuela.
In theory, the Venezuelans, who were in the US on tourist visas and could not have passed a background check, should not have been able to purchase any weapons, let alone a stockpile of this magnitude. But intelligence consultancy, Armament Research Services (ARES), reported that the Venezuelan suspects purchased the guns from specialized websites, which have been known to abuse the “private sale loophole” used by gun shows.
Under US federal law, private individuals are allowed to sell firearms without acquiring a license or conducting a background check. The purpose is to allow gun sales between family members and friends without an unreasonable amount of paperwork or hassle, while still requiring anyone engaged in the “business of selling firearms" to register.
Until recently, the law was vague on the difference between private sellers and businesses. It hinged on whether a seller’s income from firearms made up their livelihood – a notoriously difficult thing for authorities to prove, according to analysis by the Trace, a news organization focused on gun violence. Vendors seeking to skirt background checks could do so at gun shows or through online sales.
Arms traffickers have also exploited the loophole to traffic guns to Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and beyond. In Puerto Rico, three men sold close to 1,000 guns illegally, often to gang members.
The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act does not close this private sale loophole, which would require universal background checks. However, it does force those selling guns for profit to register. If properly enforced, this could give authorities more room to target dealers trafficking in the highest volumes of firearms, according to the Trace.
What Is a Firearm?
In January 2022, US authorities arrested a man in Rhode Island accused of trafficking ghost guns. These guns are almost impossible to trace. This is because, for decades, the US has only regulated and serialized one part of the gun – the lower receiver or frame. Fringe merchants have bypassed this rule primarily by selling nearly-complete frames or receivers, called "80 percent lowers."
According to experts, minimal skill and equipment are required to assemble these ghost guns. “You can finish a lower at home, all you need is a drill," Andrei Serbin Pont, director of the Regional Coordination of Economic and Social Investigations (Coordinadora Regional de Investigaciones Económicas y Sociales - CRIES), a think tank focused on public policy in Latin America, told InSight Crime.
That seems to be exactly what the Rhode Island defendant did, allegedly “machining” more than a hundred guns from parts he bought online. He then shipped the finished weapons to the Dominican Republic.
Experts agree that this type of easy access has made ghost guns a growing source of black-market firearms across the region.
“The proliferation…of these types of home-assembled weapons, bought without background checks, continues to grow,” Grillo told InSight Crime.
These ghost guns then end up in the hands of criminal groups across the region. “These types of guns pop up in the favelas in Rio, in the hands of criminal organizations in Colombia, and to a certain extent Mexico, as well," said Serbin Pont.
But while there have been documented cases of ghost guns being assembled from Venezuela to Brazil, the unregulated kits themselves are purchased in the United States.
The Frame or Receiver Final Rule seeks to close this “ghost gun” loophole by expanding the definition of “firearm” in the United States. This definition will now include operable weapons but also the core building blocks of a weapon as well as nearly-complete weapons and kits. It also requires licensed dealers to take any un-serialized firearms, register them, and serialize them.
There Is More to Be Done
While the recent legislation is a sign of progress, experts agree that there’s still work to be done.
One concern is that the Frame or Receiver Final Rule is not permanent. Unlike the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, the rule was not passed as a law and could therefore be reversed by a new administration.
“Ghost guns are a challenge and a continuously growing one. Right now, there’s a failure to make a basic attempt at dealing with this. This needs to be regulated," said Grillo.
There have also been efforts, both in the US Senate and in the courts, to block or halt the implementation of the rule.
Experts were also split on the efficiency of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. For Grillo, “it’s an attempt to attack the source [of ghost guns] in a big way."
But Lindsey-Poland was more skeptical. “I doubt [the new law] will change the economics of arms trafficking…It’s very hard to know if it will impact cross-border traffic,” he told InSight Crime. According to him, for the law to really impact arms trafficking, prosecutors would have to devote far more resources towards investigating such crimes.