I would like to challenge both the National Rifle Association and the Obama Administration to prove to the American public that either of you has any idea what you're talking about when it comes to southbound weapons trafficking to Mexico.
The issue at hand is not whether guns sold in the United States are making their way into cartel hands; that's indisputable. It's trying to figure out exactly how many of those guns come from the U.S., and how many come from elsewhere.
The Obama Administration has stated publicly that the United States bears much of the responsibility for the flow of firearms into Mexico, and has pledged to work harder to stop it. The NRA is diametrically opposed to this point of view. They have millions of members and represent gun owners' right to bear arms, regardless of the caliber. They believe there are too many gun laws already, and that the government only wants to take guns away from law-abiding citizens.
Here's where the problem lies. No one - not the NRA, not the Obama Administration, and not the Mexican government - knows what proportion of cartel guns comes from the north and from the south. But each will tell you otherwise.
The controversy kicked into high gear about two years ago, when the federal government started using firearms trace data from the ATF to make the claim that 90 percent of cartel guns came from U.S. sources. The problem was that not all of the guns seized by Mexican authorities during that time frame were submitted for tracing. Of the 7,900 guns that were successfully traced, 90 percent were found to have come from U.S. sources. Yet, 12,000 were seized and never submitted, with origins unknown.
A report drafted in June 2011 by three Democratic senators included trace data from both 2009 and 2010. Of the 29,284 guns seized in Mexico and submitted for tracing during that time, 70 percent came back to U.S. sources. This is a considerably lower percentage than the 2009 figure. Also, many traces in both cases are duplicates, so the statistics aren't completely accurate.
The NRA believes that most cartel guns come from Central America or corrupt Mexican military sources. The lobby group claims to have "ample evidence" that this is true. In April 2011, the NRA cited General Douglas Fraser's testimony before Congress that "more than 50 percent of military-grade weaponry flowing through the region originated from Central American arsenals." They also cited Admiral James Winnefeld, commander of U.S. Northern Command, who declared that "firearms were coming into Mexico from other parts of Latin America, with certain types of weaponry originating south of Mexico."
One problem with this "evidence" is that it's not really evidence at all. Gen. Fraser never testified to what proportion of cartel guns are classified as military-grade. Similarly, Adm. Winnefeld never said exactly how many firearms were coming into Mexico from other parts of Latin America. They couldn't, because nobody knows.
Fortunately, there are some things we do know. We know that Mexican cartels' weapons of choice include several types of rifles and handguns readily available in the United States. We also know they acquire military-grade weapons that are not. We know cartels hire U.S. citizens called straw purchasers to legally buy firearms here, then transfer them south via a method called "ant trafficking." We also know that grenades and rocket launchers used by cartels can't be purchased by anyone at a U.S. gun shop.
For some people, the only thing they hate more than being told they're wrong is being told they don't know. It would be difficult for the Obama Administration to form a solid and effective policy regarding southbound weapons trafficking the U.S. government ever publicly acknowledged it has no idea exactly how many guns in Mexico come from the United States. Also, the NRA's lobbying efforts would be significantly hampered if they acknowledged they could never definitively prove that most weapons in Mexico come from Central America and internal Mexican sources.
That leaves us with two major players in the weapons trafficking debate who will never back down from the fight, and will never admit that they might be wrong. Unfortunately for the American and Mexican people, that translates into a stalemate under which no effective policy or strategy can be formed to address a problem that neither side can deny exists.
• Sylvia Longmire (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a former senior border security analyst for the California Emergency Management Agency, a former Air Force special agent, and author of the forthcoming book "Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico's Drug Wars"