Two congressional Democrats, fresh from a trip to Mexico City, plan to propose tighter restrictions on gun trafficking to combat illegal U.S. sales that they say may supply 80% of the arsenals of Mexican drug cartels.
"These reforms are essential to help law enforcement to stop guns from getting into the hands of the world's most dangerous criminals," Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) said Thursday at a congressional forum on gun trafficking.
Republicans countered that the move was an effort by Democrats to distract attention from the problems of an undercover operation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that allowed 1,765 guns to be sold into Mexico. Republicans in Congress, led by California Rep. Darrell Issa of Vista and Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, are investigating the operation, known as Fast and Furious.
As part of Fast and Furious, ATF agents allowed straw purchases, in which a person buys guns on behalf of someone else who cannot legally buy them. The idea was to allow the purchases to go through in order to trace where the guns ended up, but agents appear to have lost track of a significant number of the weapons. Nearly 200 of the guns were used in crimes in Mexico, officials have determined, and two weapons were found in December at the scene of a U.S. Border Patrol agent's killing.
Republican investigators want to know how many top ATF and Justice Department officials were aware of the program and approved it. The acting director of the ATF, Kenneth E. Melson, is being pressured to step down.
At a hearing of the House oversight committee on June 15, Issa blocked questions by Democrats regarding whether loopholes in current gun laws hurt enforcement efforts, saying the topic was not within the scope of the hearing.
Cummings and Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) said that although the investigation into Fast and Furious was "very important," they were looking for solutions to the broader problems of gun trafficking in Mexico. In an accompanying report released by Cummings, the Democrats said authorities from the Mexican federal police had told them that as many as 80% of the weapons recovered at Mexican crime scenes are traced to the United States.
John D. Feeley, the U.S. charge d'affaires in Mexico, warned that weapons trafficking was fueling "warlike activities" by the cartels, the report said. It also quoted the former ATF attache in Mexico, Darren Gil, as saying: "Without a doubt, the majority of weapons that we're recovering come from the U.S."
The proposal by the two Democrats includes stronger penalties for straw purchases and a new law on federal firearms trafficking. They also want the ATF to have the power to obtain reports from gun dealers on purchases of multiple long guns. Current law requires reports for purchases of multiple handguns, but excludes long guns.
A spokesman for the National Rifle Assn. said the solution to the gun-running problem was increased enforcement, not more laws. "Straw purchasing is already a felony under current law, and the question is why aren't these laws being enforced," Andrew Arulanandam said. "What the NRA wants and what our members want is for gun crimes to be prosecuted."
Frederick Hill, a spokesman for Issa, called the forum an "effort to distract from clear wrongdoing that happened in the Justice Department."