Two weeks ago (as Radley Balko noted), a Fox News story by William La Jeunesse and Maxim Lott debunked the commonly heard factoid that 90 percent of the firearms used by Mexican drug traffickers come from American dealers. In a front-page story about gun smuggling on Tuesday, The New York Times modified the claim, saying "90 percent of the 12,000 pistols and rifles the Mexican authorities recovered from drug dealers last year and asked to be traced came from [gun] dealers in the United States." But according to La Jeunesse and Lott, that's not quite right either:
In 2007-2008, according to ATF Special Agent William Newell, Mexico submitted 11,000 guns to the ATF for tracing. Close to 6,000 were successfully traced—and of those, 90 percent—5,114 to be exact, according to testimony in Congress by William Hoover—were found to have come from the U.S.
But in those same two years, according to the Mexican government, 29,000 guns were recovered at crime scenes.
In other words, 68 percent of the guns that were recovered were never submitted for tracing. And when you weed out the roughly 6,000 guns that could not be traced from the remaining 32 percent, it means 83 percent of the guns found at crime scenes in Mexico could not be traced to the U.S.
Hence La Jeunesse and Lott's conclusion that "only 17 percent of guns found at Mexican crime scenes have been traced to the U.S." Which sounds a lot less impressive than 90 percent.
Does the percentage matter? Rhetorically, yes, because gun controllers argue that more restrictions should be placed on American gun buyers to reduce smuggling of firearms to Mexico. The Times story implicitly makes an argument for heavier regulation of long gun sales and requiring private sellers to do background checks (a.k.a. closing the "gun show loophole"). It also suggests that the sheer number of retailers, such as the "1,500 licensed gun dealers in the Houston area, easily accessible to Mexico," is a problem.
The story does acknowledge skepticism that limiting Americans' gun rights will reduce violence in Mexico:
With billions in profits from illegal drugs, the cartels can easily obtain weapons on the black market in other countries, [NRA Executive Vice President Wayne] LaPierre and many gun dealers argue. "The cartels have the money to get guns wherever they want," said Charles Fredien, the owner of Chuck's Gun in Brownsville, Tex., on the border "They have grenades, don't they? They don't buy grenades here."
You might think the persistence of the drug traffickers' main business, which consists of transporting and selling products that are entirely illegal on both sides of the border, would give pause to those who think they can block the flow of guns to the cartels. Instead, the violence fostered by drug control feeds demands for equally futile gun control.
In February I noted Attorney General Eric Holder's call for renewing the federal "assault weapon" ban in response to Mexico's prohibition-related violence. The Cato Institute's David Rittgers detects a rhetorical shift from "assault weapons," which was always an arbitrary and fuzzy category, to "military-style weapons," which he says is potentially "a term inclusive of all modern firearms in a back-door attempt to enact a new gun control scheme."
Addendum: Radley Balko points out that President Obama yesterday used the erroneous 90 percent figure during his visit to Mexico, where he reiterated his support for an "assault weapon" ban. "Some 90 per cent of the guns recovered in Mexico come from the United States," Obama said, repeating a claim made by Mexican President Felipe Calderon.