About a year and a half ago, FOX News' William LaJeunesse put out a report about the "Myth of 90 Percent." Essentially, it said that only a small percentage of firearms being used by Mexican DTOs came from US sources, as opposed to the "90 percent" figure that American officials like to cite instead. You can read my blog post about that story HERE.
Today, Stratfor put out a similar report - albeit not as condemning - in its "Security Weekly" report. Here's an excerpt:
"Interestingly, the part of this argument pertaining to guns has been adopted by many politicians and government officials in the United States in recent years. It has now become quite common to hear U.S. officials confidently assert that 90 percent of the weapons used by the Mexican drug cartels come from the United States. However, a close examination of the dynamics of the cartel wars in Mexico — and of how the oft-echoed 90 percent number was reached — clearly demonstrates that the number is more political rhetoric than empirical fact. As we discussed in a previous analysis, the 90 percent number was derived from a June 2009 U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report to Congress on U.S. efforts to combat arms trafficking to Mexico (see external link). According to the GAO report, some 30,000 firearms were seized from criminals by Mexican authorities in 2008. Of these 30,000 firearms, information pertaining to 7,200 of them (24 percent) was submitted to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) for tracing. Of these 7,200 guns, only about 4,000 could be traced by the ATF, and of these 4,000, some 3,480 (87 percent) were shown to have come from the United States.
"This means that the 87 percent figure relates to the number of weapons submitted by the Mexican government to the ATF that could be successfully traced and not from the total number of weapons seized by Mexican authorities or even from the total number of weapons submitted to the ATF for tracing. In fact, the 3,480 guns positively traced to the United States equals less than 12 percent of the total arms seized in Mexico in 2008 and less than 48 percent of all those submitted by the Mexican government to the ATF for tracing. This means that almost 90 percent of the guns seized in Mexico in 2008 were not traced back to the United States. The remaining 22,800 firearms seized by Mexican authorities in 2008 were not traced for a variety of reasons... Of course, some or even many of the 22,800 firearms the Mexicans did not submit to ATF for tracing may have originated in the United States. But according to the figures presented by the GAO, there is no evidence to support the assertion that 90 percent of the guns used by the Mexican cartels come from the United States — especially when not even 50 percent of those that were submitted for tracing were ultimately found to be of U.S. origin."
Analysis: The first point I want to make - and one that Scott Stewart seems to have missed - is that NO ONE knows exactly what proportion of firearms used by Mexican DTOs comes from US sources. It could be 95 percent, or it could be 27 percent. It's a highly charged and polarizing issue, which means that pro-gun groups and gun-control advocates are going to use existing statistics and publicly available trace data in whatever ways support their convictions and further their agendas. That doesn't change the fact that we will NEVER know the exact proportion - to within 20 percentage points, in my opinion - of American guns being used to kill people in Mexico.
The second point I want to make is one I can't take credit for. I was interviewing ATF Special Agent in Charge Bill Newell back in December for my book, and he said something that I found really interesting. He surmised that people spend a lot of time arguing about the exact percentage of American guns going south to Mexico, but no one argues about the percentage of drugs going north.
Currently accepted statistics from our border agencies tell us that they think they're seizing about 10 percent of all drugs coming from Mexico into the US. We're also told that 90 percent of our cocaine and 60 percent of our marijuana comes from Mexican DTOs. Based on the lack of media reporting, no one argues with these numbers. There also doesn't seem to be a huge firestorm between lobby groups, the media, drug users, and the Mexican government over these numbers. But are they even accurate? We're seizing a smaller percentage of drugs on the border than the percentage of guns being seized by Mexican officials and traced by the ATF. But no one on either side of the border is screaming that it's actually only 43 percent of our cocaine and 37 percent of our marijuana coming from Mexico.
Why? Because everyone in both countries can easily acknowledge that we have a shared drug trafficking and drug use problem that seriously needs to be addressed and resolved. Why can't we acknowledge the same about our shared weapons trafficking problem without getting wrapped around the axle over the exact percentage figure??? Hypothetically speaking, let's say only 40 percent of the guns being used by DTOs in Mexico came from US sources, and by some insane miracle, we knew this to be a hard fact. Does that all of a sudden make it OK? Do we no longer have a southbound weapons trafficking problem, and can the ATF hang up their hats and go home early? What would be an acceptable figure for the American gun lobby to say, "See? We told you so!", and for the US government to say to Mexico, "It's really not our problem, so you have to fix it on your own."
You've read my rants on the use of statistics, and I don't like them simply because they can be so easily manipulated. To deny that US-origin guns play a significant role in the drug war simply because we can't arrive at one specific statistic is foolish and dangerous. No matter what the exact number or proportion is, we have a legitimate southbound weapons trafficking problem that needs to be addressed and mitigated by all the tools at our disposal - laws, policy, and enforcement.