DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton

In a recent meeting of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) told Lanny Breuer, Assistant Attorney General of the Criminal Division within the Justice Department, that it was “extremely embarrassing that Mexico has been as kind to us.” According to Delegate Norton, the U.S. bears primary responsibility for the armed lawlessness of Mexico’s drug cartels. From the Mexican perspective, Delegate Norton argued the U.S. is “essentially shipping down arms to kill my people”.   If she were Mexican, she “would have been very, very angry at the Big Kahuna in the north.”

Delegate Norton followed that claim with others, asserting that “nobody in the United States is doing very much to keep thugs from acquiring those guns in the first place,” and that Mr. Breuer “know[s] exactly where [the guns] came from.” Breuer did offer a defense of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, asserting that they “are doing an extraordinary job with their resources,” but he largely agreed with her charge that Mexico’s gun problem derives from the U.S. Indeed, in response to a question from Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL), Breuer stated that “It’s inescapable that a very large percentage of the guns that are in Mexico today do in fact come from the United States.”

The Government Accounting Office disagrees. On June 19, Jess T. Ford, Director of International Affairs and Trade, testified before the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere. Mr. Ford stated that “[it] is impossible to know how many firearms are illegally trafficked into Mexico in a given year.” Of the weapons that have been seized and traced in Mexico over the past five years, the GAO reports that approximately 87% originated in the U.S. That is the basis for the “90 percent” figure quoted by Rep. Quigley.

But this number does not mean what Rep. Quigley appears to believe it does. It says nothing about what percentage of guns seized in Mexico actually originated in the U.S., because not all seized guns are traced. The number only shows that Mexican authorities have over the past five years been 87% accurate in their preliminary assessment that a seized weapon may have originated in the U.S. and should be traced through the U.S.’s eTrace system.

And it also says nothing about what percentage of guns in Mexico originated in the U.S. because, as Mr. Ford stated, no one knows how many guns enter Mexico illegally. Figures like “90 percent” sound impressive, but actual numbers are more illustrative and a good deal less intimidating: the number of guns seized in all of Mexico that have been traced back to the U.S., according to the GAO, has ranged from 1,950 in 2006 to 6,700 in 2008.

There are three disconcerting things about this hearing. First, no one involved in the Committee – either witnesses or questioners – appears to have been fully acquainted with the government’s own report on the subject, which directly contradicts their entire interchange. Second, the Committee is drawing on these misconceptions to stir up enmity and anger between the U.S. and Mexico, to accuse the U.S. of facilitating arms trafficking, and to blame the U.S. for Mexico’s cartels. This does no service to U.S. authorities, to vital U.S.-Mexican cooperation, to the reputation of the U.S., or to the facts.

And third, the Committee is giving further credence to the phony “90 percent” statistic, which is part of the public campaign for the “Inter-American Convention Against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives, and Other Related Materials.” President Obama has backed the Convention as part of his public outreach to Mexico, but it is a seriously flawed treaty that poses considerable risks to the freedoms of Americans and those of foreign nationals residing in the U.S. The fact that its cause is being advanced by means such as the Committee’s hearing is yet one more strike against it.