Several comments have taken issue with my post on the recent Washington Post article on the supposed prevalence of gun smuggling from the U.S. to Mexico. I’m glad to respond to their concerns.

Let me begin by pointing out that it is not possible to prove absolutely that, of all the guns in Mexico, only the 17,000 guns I cite in my post, and no others, came from the United States. That is known as seeking to prove a negative.  I should also point out that the burden of proof for those making extraordinary claims – and the claim that up to 90 percent of Mexican guns come from the U.S. is certainly extraordinary – rests on those making the claims, not those expressing skepticism about them, and producing data to back up that skepticism.

With that out of the way, four points.  First, the statistics on the number of guns seized in Mexico are unreliable.  The Post says “more than 60,000 U.S. guns of all types” in the past four years.  President Calderon says 75,000 guns total “in the last three years.”  The BBC, in a piece published today, says 93,000 guns total in the past four years.  What does this tell me?  It tells me that the data are bad, and that people making extravagant claims on this subject are more interested in sounding impressive for political reasons than in being correct or accurate.

Second, the data that the U.S. has produced is not intended to be used as the critics sometimes use it.  Trace data is intended to trace a particular gun, not to be compiled into a collective ‘percentage of guns of U.S. origin in Mexico.’ That is why, when writing about this subject, it is important to do no more than provide a rough range, and point out that we are talking about seized guns, not the total number of guns in Mexico.  In my original post, I noted that “less than a third [of seized guns] have been traced back to the U.S.” The data does not permit the more precise (if spurious) ‘80 percent or more’ figure sometimes offered (as in inaccurate press summaries of President Calderon’s remarks in May), though this figure, in any case, is based on a complete misinterpretation of the original GAO report.

Third, how do we know that the guns not attributed to the U.S. are not actually from the U.S.?  Well, as I point out above, this is a demand to prove a negative.  But the Post points out (online version) that “ATF officials complain that, in the past, most guns seized in Mexico were not traced.”  The NCPA has just released a report reiterating this point, and noting the wide range of other sources for seized guns.  The BBC also reiterates this point.  (I should, though, also note that the BBC repeats all the Post’s errors, and that the treaty with which the NCPA report is concerned is more properly known as the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty.)

Mexico is highly incentivized, for reasons of domestic politics, to blame the U.S. for gun smuggling.  But weapons produced in the U.S., or imported into it, must – with a few exceptions – bear a serial number: the absence of such a number, while not absolute proof that the weapon is not from the U.S., is a very strong indication to that effect.  Finally, tracing online through the U.S.’s eTrace system is available to Mexican law enforcement.  Together, this leads me to conclude that Mexican authorities have the motive and the opportunity to trace weapons to the U.S., but that they do not do so in many cases because the weapon itself appears, prime facie, not to be of U.S. origin.

Does that mean that every single weapon in Mexico other than the 17,000 I cited is definitely not of U.S. origin?  No.  Does it mean that most if not all of the other 43,000 seized weapons (or 76,000, if you prefer the BBC’s figures) are therefore of U.S. origin?  There is simply no evidence to support this claim, and much evidence to refute it.  The burden of proof rests on those making the claim.

A fourth, final point: the purpose of my post is not to claim that all is well.  Clearly, there is gun smuggling across the U.S.-Mexican border, and that is a violation of the law.  The point, though, is that the CIFTA Treaty (advocacy for which is the real, if unstated, point of the Post’s story) will do nothing to address this problem, and that, from Mexico’s point of view, the problem is fundamentally one of border control.

After all, even if you credit the claims about the number of ‘straw buyers’ in the U.S., the fact remains that these purchases are occurring in the United States: for the guns to be a problem for Mexico, they have to get over the border.  And that, in turn, suggests that we and Mexico share the same fundamental concern: each of us enforcing our laws and respecting our own freedoms within our own lands, and together controlling the border.