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August 3, 2009

Northern Exposure

Though gun control advocates typically focus on the harmful impact that weak laws have on American families, it is becoming increasingly clear that the ease of acquiring firearms in the U.S. has implications far outside our borders.

In June, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report which stated: “While it is impossible to know how many firearms are illegally smuggled into Mexico in a given year, about 87 percent of firearms seized by Mexican authorities and traced in the last 5 years originated in the United States, according to data from Department of Justice’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) … Many of these firearms come from gun shops and gun shows in Southwest border states.”

Understandably, this data has resulted in a national focus on Mexico as an example of how America’s loose laws lead to international firearms proliferation. A recent study in the journal Criminology and Criminal Justice, however, suggests that our neighbor to the north has also been profoundly affected by the trafficker-friendly environment in the United States. The findings of the study, entitled “The Illicit Firearms Trade in North America,” include the following:

The study’s authors found, “among all data sources, the majority of the successfully traced handguns recovered in crime in Canada are found to originate in the United States and we know of no evidence that would lead one to believe that other countries are a major source of smuggled handguns.”

Criminals and traffickers look south because guns are not easy to come by in Canada. Since 1930, Canadians have been required to show “just cause” to own a handgun, and all firearms must be registered with the government. Guns are particularly easy to acquire in the United States (through straw purchases and unregulated private sales), however, and “long, undefended borders between Canada and the United States, in particular, present a challenge for customs officials who must balance the demands for free flow of goods and people with security needs.”

“The main mechanisms by which weapons are illegally trafficked from one country to another are concealment, false declaration and falsification of documents and mail order,” the study observes. “The networks for smuggling guns are diffuse and range from individuals concealing a few guns in their car to large-scale commercial operations … Mail is another means of illegal importation and one that is often difficult to detect.”

Not surprisingly, the study’s recommendations for curbing the flow of firearms into Canada begin with reforms in the United States. Such reforms would include, “improvements to regulations of firearms (for example regulating transactions at gun shows…as they do in California), better enforcement of existing regulations that prohibit straw purchases and illicit sales at gun shows, and enhanced investigations of smuggling operations.”

The authors also call for freer access to information about trafficked guns. “A firmer factual base...could be established if data from criminal investigations and gun tracing were released for research purposes,” the study finds. “A broader inquiry is warranted: the stakes are very high for developing effective strategies for limiting the illicit movements of guns.” The absence of this “factual base” has been aggravated by the Tiahrt Amendments, which restrict the ability of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to release crime gun trace data, as well as require the destruction of approved criminal background check records after 24 hours.

Toothless U.S. gun laws endanger not only Americans, but the entire continent. With all the recent concern about American guns feeding a war against the government in Mexico, it is long past time to consider the harm being done north of the border.

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