WASHINGTON – Members of Congress may be alarmed by the surge in Mexican drug violence and its potential to spill across the border, but they grow silent when the talk turns to gun control as a solution.
With related kidnappings and killings occurring in the U.S., the Obama administration is likely to shift dozens of enforcement agents and millions of dollars to the fight against Mexican drug cartels.
Yet when Attorney General Eric Holder suggested reinstituting a U.S. ban on the sale of certain semiautomatic weapons, many lawmakers balked. The 1994 ban expired after 10 years.
"The Second Amendment Task Force opposes the discussed ban and will fight any attempts that infringe on our Second Amendment rights," said Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., a chairman of the group. Six Democrats and six Republicans co-signed his statement.
Mexico has long tried to get the United States to curtail the number of guns — many purchased legally — that wind up south of the border, where gun laws are much stricter. The State Department says firearms obtained in the U.S. account for an estimated 95 percent of Mexico's drug-related killings.
"If President (Felipe) Calderon's policies to roll back organized crime are to be successful, we need to defang the power of the drug syndicates to inflict damage upon our state, local and police forces," Arturo Sarukhan, the Mexican ambassador to the United States, said in January. "The best way we can do that is for a real ratcheting up of the United States' capabilities of shutting down the flow of weapons."
That may prove tough to do.
After opposition from the National Rifle Association, 22 Democrats joined Republicans in a Senate vote this month to negate the District of Columbia's tough gun registration requirements and overturn its ban on rapid-fire semiautomatic weapons. More than 80 House Democrats backed a similar measure last year.
The gun lobby has raised more than $20 million for political candidates since the 1990 election cycle, with about 85 percent going to Republicans. That ranks 68th among about 80 industry groups tracked by the OpenSecrets.org campaign finance watchdog.
When border violence comes up in hearings, lawmakers say they don't see a need for new gun laws.
"I don't think the solution to Mexico's problems is to limit Second Amendment gun rights in this country," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, chairman of the Senate GOP's election committee. "What we can do is help our Mexican friends enforce their own laws."
Republican Rep. Jeff Flake said he believed a recent hearing on Mexico drug violence was actually a discussion of gun control.
"Instead of punishing law-abiding Americans with stricter controls, we must continue to punish those who break the law," said Flake, of Arizona, where 700 cartel-related kidnappings have occurred over two years.
For his part, Obama has signaled a willingness to tighten restrictions on guns, calling the flow of drug money and guns "a two-way situation." Yet 65 Democrats said in a letter to Holder that they would oppose any attempt by the administration to revive a ban on military-style weapons.
Congress did provide $45 million this year for Project Gunrunner, a federal program aimed at curbing the flow of guns. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, a Texas Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said he will seek another $30 million over two years for the program and $30 million more to fund efforts by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to crack down on gun trafficking.
Tom Diaz, an analyst at the Violence Policy Center, a gun control group, said cartels use military-style weapons such as the Armalite AR-50, a .50-caliber sniper rifle.
He brought one to a recent congressional hearing — with the help of two police officers — and said he found the weapon on the Internet, bought it for $3,200 from a Maryland "kitchen table" dealer and had it registered in the District of Columbia, all in about six hours.
Semiautomatic rifles used by the cartels are imported legally into the U.S. as "sporting" weapons, a policy that was stopped for years but revived under President George W. Bush. The government could stop importation of those weapons under the 1968 Gun Control Act and thus keep them from winding up in Mexico, Diaz said.
Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., who chaired a hearing on guns going to Mexico, said he is not seeking widespread gun control but Congress must do something.
"We don't want to get distracted by the gun industry lobby of the NRA trying to talk about (how) every attempt to bring some sanity to the situation is somehow an attempt to get rid of everybody's Second Amendment rights," he said. "That's a red herring."
Sarukhan, the Mexican ambassador, said Mexico simply wants existing U.S. gun laws applied.
"Just on the Arizona and Texas border, there are 12,000 gun shops and countless other gun shows that week in and week out rove around the border area," Sarukhan said.
On the Net:
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives: http://www.atf.gov
Drug Enforcement Administration: http://www.dea.gov