The unchecked gunrunning across the Mexican border has created an all-too-familiar story for big-city mayors across the country. Guns are purchased illegally, sold at a profit to drug dealers and used to kill innocent people and police officers, all while local law enforcement authorities lack the federal support they need to do their job. American cities face these problems every day.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) has estimated that 90 percent to 95 percent of the guns recovered at Mexican crime scenes have been purchased in the United States, because Mexico's laws make it much more difficult for criminals to buy guns.
After smuggling them across the border, drug cartels have used these guns to control drug-trafficking routes into the United States - and kill anyone who stands in their way, about 7,000 people over the past 15 months. The U.S. government spends billions of dollars every year to stop the flow of drugs across our borders, and yet we are turning a blind eye to the gun trafficking that helps make it possible. Talk about shooting ourselves in the foot.
The recently signed stimulus bill includes $10 million to increase the number of ATF agents working along the border. That's money well spent, and efforts by Rep. Ciro D. Rodriguez, Texas Democrat, and others to secure even more funding deserve broad support.
However, we cannot solve the problem of gun smuggling with stricter border enforcement alone. Nor can we end the smuggling of illegal guns by reinstituting the assault-weapons ban, which, in any event, congressional leaders have indicated is dead on arrival.
In recent meetings with the Mexican ambassador, Obama administration officials and members of Congress, I have stressed the need for a more targeted and pragmatic approach, one that focuses not on the type of weapon being sold illegally or whether that gun is bound for Mexico, but on the fact that an illegal sale is occurring in the first place.
The dirty little secret of Mexican gunrunning is that the drug cartels south of the border and the drug dealers north of it are exploiting the same loose laws. According to the ATF, there are two key trafficking sources for illegal guns, whether they're being sold to criminals in Mexican or American cities.
First, by frequenting gun shows and flea markets, traffickers can bypass criminal background checks, which licensed gun dealers are required to perform. Closing this gun-show loophole would not cost the federal government a nickel, and it would be a major blow to traffickers.
The second major source of smuggled guns is straw purchasers, Americans who are paid to buy guns for traffickers who cannot themselves pass criminal background checks. This is against federal law, and most gun dealers refuse to sell to straw purchasers. But a few bad apples ignore the law, as New York City found out when it conducted undercover buys in five states. We filed civil suits against the two dozen dealers we found breaking federal law, and those dealers have agreed to court-appointed monitors who are holding them accountable for following the law.
Congress has largely ignored the problem of straw purchasing and has never given the ATF the resources it needs to combat it. Even worse, Congress has restricted states' and cities' access to data that can identify straw purchasers and the few dealers who supply them. That makes it harder for local authorities to map the illegal trafficking market.
These restrictions on trace data are called Tiahrt Amendments, named for their prime sponsor, Rep. Todd Tiahrt, Kansas Republican. The Tiahrt Amendments also require the FBI to destroy background-check records within 24 hours, making it harder to identify straw purchasers and harder to catch law-breaking gun dealers who falsify their records.
More than 350 mayors from both political parties have joined together to urge Congress to repeal these restrictions - and to close the gun-show loophole, a step both Sen. John McCain and President Obama have supported.
Michael R. Bloomberg is mayor of New York City.