Obama's small step to slow the flow of assault weapons to Mexico

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms wants gun dealers on the southern border to report bulk sales of assault weapons for six months. These semiautomatic rifles are popular with Mexican drug cartels. More than the AFT's temporary measure is needed.

With nearly 12,500 people reported killed in drug-related violence in Mexico this year, the Obama administration is belatedly taking a small step to curb the flow of guns from US dealers to the drug cartels.

In May, Mexican President Felipe Calderón visited Washington and urged the Congress and president to dam up the river of guns – more than 60,000 in four years – coursing south. Mr. Calderón wants Congress to reinstate the prohibition on assault weapons, a 10-year ban that expired in 2004.

But the National Rifle Association (NRA) has targeted so many lawmakers, they quake before the gun lobby. Mr. Obama has been forced to attack this problem through regulation – although his campaign platform included reinstating the ban.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is proposing that about 8,500 federally licensed gun dealers along the border report bulk sales of so-called assault weapons – semiautomatic rifles such as AK-47s, which are popular with the cartels.

The “emergency” measure, as the ATF calls it, is to help the agency track suspected gunrunning patterns of military-style weapons. The ATF already collects bulk-sale information on handguns.

It’s a small step, considering its temporary nature and the fact that the guns will already be out the door by the time the understaffed ATF can analyze the data.

But it’s also an important tool, helping the agency get a bigger picture of where the likely sources for gunrunners are – and setting up the first big test between this administration and the gun lobby.

The NRA has already forewarned its members that the administration might try to go around Congress. Among other things, the lobby argues that these weapons don’t need to be tracked because criminals use mostly handguns. Besides, it says, Mexico gets lots of semiautomatic rifles from other countries.

But these battlefield-type rifles are being used more and more by the cartels (after all, they’re in a war with one another and the Mexican Army). And buying in the US is cheap and easy (remember that gun shows require no buyer background checks).

Just because multiple channels for guns exist, does not argue for leaving all of them open. Indeed, if you close a big one, it may well be easier to zero in on the others.

Given their stunning political losses in 1994 and 2000 over gun issues, Democrats are gun-shy about opposing the NRA. And given Republican gains in the next Congress, it is highly unlikely that an assault-weapons ban could make a comeback. But something more than the temporary ATF step is needed.

Consider the supposedly intractable dispute over extending the Bush era tax cuts. Compromise was found. Might that not also be possible for an issue relating to the Mexican cartels, whom the State Department describes as “the gravest organized crime threat to the United States”?

The word “ban” could perhaps be open to a new interpretation at the federal level. Some states, for instance, limit the number of assault weapons a person can buy over a period of time. That doesn’t bar gun enthusiasts, but it would shut down bulk sales.

And might not gun shows also finally be brought into the criminal background-check system, to close down that loophole – which gunrunners lope through? The vast majority of Americans support background checks on the sale of all guns, even those at gun shows.

The gun lobby has been emboldened by recent Supreme Court rulings that interpreted the Second Amendment as an individual right to own a gun. But the court also left the door open to regulation. It’s time for Washington to walk through it.

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