From NPR's Fresh Air, 1/5/11
The interviewer is Fresh Air's Terry Gross
Intro: The Washington Post recently concluded a series called "The Hidden Life of Guns: Tracing Where Guns Used in Crime Scenes Come From." James Grimaldi is an investigative journalist who has co-written several articles in the series with Sari Horowitz. In 2006, Grimaldi shared and Pulitzer Prize for helping to uncover the Jack Abramoff scandal. Grimaldi and Horowitz investigated how an unprecedented number of guns, sold in US stores, are crossing the border into Mexico and ending up in the hands of the gun cartels. The identities of the US dealers who sell the guns have remained confidential by law. But Grimaldi and Horowitz managed to trace these guns and uncover the names of the top twelve US gun dealers whose weapons ended up in Mexican crime scenes. One of the reasons why the drug cartels need US guns is that gun laws in Mexico are very strict. There's only one legitimate gun store in Mexico and it's run by the military.
NPR: So, a lot of the guns being used in the Mexican drug wars come from the US. Give us asense of the scope -- what percentage of the guns come from here?
James Grimaldi: That's probably the most controversial question you could ask! At least from the point of view of the National Rifle Association! Really probably the better figure to focus on is the raw number of guns that have been traced to the US. And that number is well over 60,000 guns just in the past four years. When you look at that, regardless of what the percentage is, that's a lot of guns. That's what both the ATF and Mexican officials say: the vast majority of the guns in Mexico are coming from the US. There are some pretty obvious reasons for that. We're the closest. It's easy to get guns. It's not difficult to cross the border with the guns once you get them. And there's very little stopping gun runners from doing that, at least currently. The efforts by the US and Mexican authorities have not really been a very strong deterrent in stopping the flow of guns south of the border.
NPR: What has the US been doing to try to stop gun-running from the US to Mexico?
JG: They've beefed up enforcement and opened offices along the borders. They've increased inspections at gun stores to make sure that the gun dealers are actually selling guns to legal buyers. Part of the problem that you see in guns going to Mexico is straw purchases. That's where someone who's a legal buyer is buying a gun for someone who's an illegal buyer or prohibited buyer. Those straw purchases really put the gun storesin the front lines of defending or preventing this flow of guns to Mexico. Basically, private operators of stores are our main line of defense!
NPR: You mean because they should be screening who gets the gun and who doesn't?
JG: They essentially are the main screeners, as required under federal law. You have to be the actually buyer of the gun. You can't be purchasing it on behalf of another person. You can't be a felon or someone legally insane or under the influence of drugs. And there are several other requirements. They also have to submit to a national background check that's done pretty much instantaneously by the gun dealer. As we found in some of the cases where there's gun-running to Mexico, some of the buyers are actually doing it for prohibited purchasers who are then taking them across the border.
NPR: There are many reasons why it's difficult to trace where the American guns that end up in Mexico actually originated. One of the problem comes from the National Tracing Center itself. This is the tracing center that handles... what...?
JG: Hundreds of thousands, over the years, of traces.
NPR: For the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. So what are the problems that the Tracing Center has?
JG: The Tracing Center is required to follow laborious and very complicated regulations that have been put out over the years, largely put in place because of the Second Amendment and at the insistence of the National Rifle Association. Essentially the ATF cannot have a computerized database of people who own guns in the US. The NRA opposes any registry of guns to be kept by the government. As a result, the ATF essentially has to trace every gun in a crime gun trace by hand!
NPR: You're talking about literally paperwork.
JG: It's literally paperwork or phone calls. There may be some computers involved. But there's a prohibition on, frankly, these computers communicating with each other and creating a national registry. That's been banned by federal law since 1978.
NPR: You actually went to the National Tracing Center -- which not many people who aren't agents get to do. Tell us what you saw there.
JG: Well, it's really an amazing place! Maybe like something out of the movie "Brazil" where you could literally see boxes and boxes of documents that pile up at the Tracing Center and the Tracing Center is trying to process them. These are out of commission or out-of-business dealers. When a dealer goes out of business, they need to keep these records of purchases so they can search them by hand and they ship them off to the National Tracing Center. They can be written in pencil, in ledger books. They can sometimes arrive water-logged from hurricane or flood damage which may have led to the store closing. It's really a bureaucratic mess! Even friends of the NRA believe it has put unusual restraint and difficulties on the ATF.
NPR: When was the law preventing a computer database put into place?
JG: It goes back to the 1970's after the passage of the Gun Control Act of 1968. The Carter administration came in with a rule which they imposed asking each of the gun dealers to keep an inventory of their guns so they could facilitate traces of guns used in crimes. The NRA blocked that rule and put in place a prohibition beginning in 1978 and in every appropriations bill since then that restricts the ATF from creating computerized registries of any sort or shape about gun ownership.
NPR: When you say the NRA, the NRA doesn't literally get a vote in Congress. So what do you mean by that?
JG: That was a slight overstatement. But at the urging of the NRA, members of Congress who gained a lot of support from the National Rifle Association added a rider into Congressional appropriations legislation. This came at the same time that the NRA had marshalled a letter-writing campaign that resulted in 350,000 letters opposing this rule going to the ATF. That was certainly noted by the members of Congress who put this in place.
NPR: So you wanted to do your own tracing to see what stores in the US were selling the most weapons that ended up in Mexico. But you don't have access to tracing information. A few years ago you would have through the Freedom of Information Act. But that is blocked now. You can't use FOIA to access tracing information. When and how did that change?
JG: That changed in 2003 when the gun lobby, the NRA, and gun manufacturers went to Congress and asked them to put it off limits. They did that through an appropriation bill to the ATF basically saying, "You can't give this data out." It shut down any news stories that had been published in the past exposing where the guns were coming from and showing which stores tended to be the places where criminals went to buy their guns. The NRA and the gun industry opposed this mostly -- not only because of that embarrassment but also because trial lawyers had been suing many of the guns stores and manufacturers. They felt they were at risk of destroying the industry by using this gun tracing data to follow the patterns of gun trafficking.
NPR: Yet you managed to get access to this information and find out which gun stores in the US were selling the most guns that ended up in Mexico. How did you get access to the information? Tell us what you can tell us...
JG: ...Well, not a lot! We don't talk a lot about sources and methods. We decided to set out and break the secrecy and find out which gun stores were providing or selling the guns that ended up in Mexico. And then taking a look at the gun stores. That's what we did. We analyzed their background, the law suits that had been filed against them, whether their cases had shown up in any criminal cases that were made by the federal government or the ATF. Not surprisingly, the ones that ended up on the list, many of them actually did have somewhat checkered records, involvement in purchases by gun runners to Mexico. Now, all of the stores, of course, say that they were unwitting, that they didn't know about this. One of the stores that we had focused on, in fact, is now saying they were deliberately making these sales in cooperation with the ATF. And it comes out that that store is under federal investigation. The ATF says they don't do that kind of arrangement with a gun store unless they catch the person before they leave the property.
NPR: You're talking about a sting operation?
JG: They suggested it was a sting operation. The ATF says, "We won't make a deal with a store unless we tell them, 'Don't make a sale until we show up.'" This store says they were routinely making sales and then tipping off the ATF about it after the fact.
NPR: So now that you did your own tracing of where guns in the Mexican drug wars came from, the stores that sold them in the US, do you have any reason to believe you have information or a kind of pattern that you've been able to map out, that the ATF does not?
JG: No. I think the ATF has been very much on top of where the guns have been traced to. That wasn't really the point of our investigation. I think our point was to show the broader public, the gun dealers themselves, law enforcement agencies outside of the federal government and outside the ATF what these patterns really are. There was a lot of myth and mythology promoted by supporters of gun rights and others about where the guns were coming from. I think our story showed very clearly that they're coming from gun stores in the US, primarily, and going across the border to Mexico. Why? Because it's easy!
NPR: So you wanted to make this information public because the ATF isn't allowed to?
JG: The ATF is prohibited under federal law from releasing this information. In fact, this information is exempted from the Freedom of Information Act by a law passed in Congress in 2003.
NPR: So we wouldn't know about these stores if you didn't write about them because the ATF is not allowed to tell us.
JG: That's right. There's no other way to get it and the way we got it -- I can't even tell you how we got it!
NPR: Getting back to Mexico. Last spring, President Obama promised Mexican president, Felipe Calderon, that he'd work to deter gun-running to Mexico. But you say Rahm Emanuel, when he was still chief of staff, stopped anything from happening. Why?
JG: There was concern in the White House, based on our reporting, that they didn't want to upset the gun lobby in Congress. Many strong friends of the NRA in Congress would raise up and probably put a limitation on certain kinds of restrictions. For example, an assault weapons ban was opposed by many Democratic members of Congress when it was first announced by Eric Holder early in the Obama administration. One thing to remember in Congress: in recent years it has almost been a fact that Democrats can't control Congress unless they have a number of conservative rural Democrats. Usually that translates into a strong NRA rating. So the White House was concerned just before the midterm elections that something that would rile the NRA base would further hurt them in their midterm elections. As a result, the proposal that was sent over by the ATF was postponed until December.
NPR: So what is the administration proposing now?
JG: They're proposing something that is already required by gun dealers for hand guns. They're asking that gun dealers -- only along the border -- report the sale of what they call "long guns." Basically assault rifles. So rifles that have a detachable magazine and a larger than 22 caliber and are sold more than two guns in a period of time of five days -- they have to be reported to the ATF. If that happens, the ATF can actually go and see if this person is using it for legitimate purposes or they're part of a larger ring. It's a key flag or indicator for investigators trying to stop gun running to Mexico.
NPR: Is this proposal something that President Obama is proposing as legislation, or as a regulation, or as an executive order?
JG: This is being proposed as an emergency -- essentially -- rule that would be required of the gun dealers along the border -- essentially -- immediately, this month. The NRA opposes it strongly. They believe that if the ATF attempts to do this rule, they should actually try to pass it as a law which they would then of course oppose. That would put the debate squarely into Congress where the NRA believes it would have the stronger hand. It probably could defeat it.
NPR: So in addition to writing about how US guns end up in Mexico, you've been writing about now the NRA, the National Rifle Association, became so powerful in American politics. Where does it get its power to influence Congress now?
JG: It largely comes from the 4 million members of the NRA across the country. I think it's also rooted in our democracy. The fact that even rural states have two senators means that in many of the lower population states you're going to have -- probably -- strong NRA membership there. Plus they spend at least 20% of their budget or about 20% of their budget annually on political activities that began at the state level and go all the way to Congress. We calculated that just over the past two decades, they've spend more than $100 million in political activities which includes lobbying. $75 million on campaigns. That doesn't include such things as voter information brochures and websites that provide information to voters. You know, NRA ranking can make a different in certain states. It was used powerfully in a large campaign in the state of Missouri this year to defeat Jean Carnahan who was running for the US Senate against Roy Blunt.
NPR: Let's get back to what's happening now. So President Obama would like to see the emergency proposal that would require gun dealers along the southwest border to report to the ATF any time that the store makes two or more sales over a five day period of semi-automatic rifles that have a caliber greater than 22 and that have a detachable magazine. The NRA opposes that. You say the NRA would like to see this being done as a law because that way they'd have the power to defeat the law from actually being passed. Do you think this is going to be a showdown now between the NRA and President Obama?
JG: It really could be one of the first gun showdowns with the NRA. Essentially, there hasn't been anything else. Some of the gun control groups like to point out that the only legislation signed was a provision in an appropriations bill allowing people to carry fire arms in national parks. Obviously that's more of a pro-gun stand than a gun control stand. So this really does mark, I think, the first real confrontation between the Obama administration and the NRA.
Here's are links to articles by James Grimaldi about guns, the gun lobby, and gun-running -- reported for the Washington Post
White House delayed rule meant to stop gun flow to Mexico (December 18, 2010)
Proposal calls for gun dealers to report bulk sales of assault weapons (December 17, 2010)
James Pasco, Fraternal Order of Police lobbyist, influences gun debate and more (December 15, 2010)
U.S. gun dealers with the most firearms traced over the past four years (December 13, 2010)
As Mexico drug violence runs rampant, U.S. guns tied to crime south of border (December 13, 2010)
U.S. gun dealers with the most firearms traced over the past four years (December 13, 2010)
ATF's oversight limited in face of gun lobby (October 26, 2010)
After gun industry pressure, veil was draped over tracing data (October 24, 2010)
Industry pressure hides gun traces, protects dealers from public scrutiny (October 24, 2010)