A new report from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives says that 68,000 guns seized by Mexico in recent years came from the United States.
But an ATF official in Washington D.C. admits the agency has no idea how many guns Mexico seizes overall, or whether the 68,000 figure represents a small or large fraction of Mexico's total of recovered guns.
The official, who did not want to give his name, agrees the guns Mexico submitted for tracing could very well be a small percentage of that country's seized guns.
"We're not going to characterize it one way or another," says the official, who also agreed the issue was highly political.
The uncertainty over how many guns Mexico really seized between 2007 and 2011, the period in question, is significant because both Mexico and the Obama Administration are using the debate over smuggled guns for political purposes.
For instance, Mexico is pressing the United States to restrict weapons sales and search more vehicles going south of the border.
Asked whether it made a difference if the number of guns turned in by Mexico for tracing was a small or large percentage of the overall guns seized -- which, clearly, it does -- the official states, "I'm not going there."
Mexico submitted 99,000 guns to the ATF that were reportedly seized, and 68,000 were traced to the United States, according to the report.
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Without knowing how many guns were seized in total for that time period, it's impossible to know the full extent of the problem of smuggled guns. As an Arizona Daily Star article pointed out in November, Mexico typically submits to the ATF for tracing only those guns suspected to have come from the United States.
That article also pointed out that searches at border crossings between Guatemala and Mexico are often minimal, which means it might be safer for drug cartel members to have weapons smuggled north from Central America rather than south from the United States.
Of course, nobody should question whether truckloads of guns aren't bought in Arizona and smuggled to Mexico -- that's a fact.
But out-of-context stats like this new one from ATF aren't adequate enough to inform the debate.