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Editorial

A weapon against drug cartels

President Obama should give the ATF authority to require gun dealers near Mexico to report multiple purchases of high-powered rifles; tracing the guns will help fight violent drug cartels.

January 05, 2011

Mexico has some of the strictest gun laws in the hemisphere. Citizens are permitted to buy low-caliber firearms for self-protection or hunting, but only after a background check and approval by the defense ministry; they must also purchase the guns directly from the ministry. The goal of this parsimonious approach to allotting firearms is a society free from gun violence. Unfortunately for Mexico, however, its weapons management strategy is sabotaged by an accident of location — its residence next door to the gun capital of the world.

The United States is awash in guns. Americans own an estimated 283 million guns, and 4.5 million new ones, including 2 million handguns, are sold each year, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Nor are these weapons confined to U.S. borders and households. Officials say that they are pouring south into Mexico, into the hands of violent drug cartels.

As part of its effort to halt the flow, the ATF has asked the White House for emergency authority to require gun dealers near the border in four states — California, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas — to report multiple purchases of high-powered rifles. Specifically, the agency wants 8,500 retailers to report any sales of two or more long rifles of .22 caliber or higher to the same customer within a five-day period.

President Obama should not hesitate to move forward with this regulation, no matter how loudly the gun lobby objects. Those who truly support securing the border understand that the greatest danger comes not from poor people seeking work but from heavily armed drug cartels and ruthless human traffickers. The only question is whether tracing the weapons would be an effective crime-fighting tool, and history says it would. When Congress passed a handgun reporting requirement in 1975 and the ATF stepped up enforcement in 1984, thousands of weapons were — and still are — traced to illegal activity and crime rings that were brought to prosecution.

Nor should the administration tremble at pro-gun saber-rattling about an infringement of 2nd Amendment rights. The regulation would not prohibit sales, purchases or ownership. Also, tracing is conducted only after a crime has been committed, not before.

One objection that cannot be dismissed is that the new rule would create more paperwork for some border-adjacent gun retailers. No business likes new red tape from Washington, but with the national security of two countries involved, the trade-off is worth the inconvenience.

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