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Editorial

Tracking the gun-runners

The Obama administration appears poised to allow the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to track bulk sales of semiautomatic long guns.

February 28, 2011

Violence along the U.S.-Mexico border continues to spiral upward, with all-too-frequent reports of bullet-ridden bodies turning up on street corners, in parks, on deserted highways, even at quinceaneras.

A complex combination of drugs, corruption and poverty may be behind the bloodletting. But the source of the weapons used to kill is easily identified: The U.S. accounts for an estimated 85% of guns seized by Mexican authorities, according to a 2009 Government Accountability Office report.

For years, U.S. officials have been promising to clamp down on gun-runners who supply drug cartels and human smugglers. Now, the Obama administration has the opportunity to make good on that pledge, by granting a request by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to track bulk sales of semiautomatic long guns. The new rule would require the 8,500 licensed gun shops in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas to report to the agency any sale of two or more rifles of greater than .22 caliber to the same person over five days.

It's a sensible and, if anything, too-modest plan that could provide valuable tips to ATF agents and help reduce violence on both sides of the border. President Obama should not only approve it, he should expand it to apply to all gun sellers nationwide. Limiting the rule to the four border states will only push the illicit trade into the nearest state where smugglers can load up on AK-47-style assault weapons.

Unsurprisingly, the National Rifle Assn. and its allies in Washington oppose this perfectly reasonable proposal. The administration, however, shouldn't be cowed by Congress, which, in a rare and unexpected show of bipartisanship, has vowed to foil the plan.

Earlier this month, the House voted 277 to 149 to block the ATF's request by barring the use of federal funds. Lawmakers contend that it threatens Americans' 2nd Amendment rights and creates an undue paperwork burden on gun sellers. But the rule would merely allow the ATF to track bulk gun sales. Americans would remain free to buy as many guns as they wish — more, frankly, than we'd like. Furthermore, gun sellers are already subject to similar reporting requirements involving multiple sales of handguns.

Lawmakers are less concerned about the Constitution than the cash that could be spent against them if they anger the NRA.

Giving federal agents a tool to trace guns isn't going to solve the problem of violence at the border, but it may help identify those who are supplying brutal drug gangs like the one that killed a U.S. immigration agent and injured another one this month in Mexico. As modest as the ATF's plan is, it's far better than what Congress is offering: the continued flow of instruments of death across a dangerous border.

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