The flood of bullets apparently pouring across the border may be a sign that U.S. agencies have become more effective at identifying and stopping smugglers. But it is also damning evidence that Arizona‘s weak gun laws are not only putting weapons into the hands of Mexican criminal groups, but may also be contributing to the gangs’ munition supply.
Ammunition regulation laws vary by state, and Arizona has next to none. Stores are not required to record mass purchases of ammunition, and there is no limit to the amount an individual can buy at one time. Under federal law, ammunition buyers are required to be U.S. citizens and have no criminal record, but store owners often fail to enforce this.
It is impossible to say how many bullets sold in Arizona are taken to Mexico, let alone end up in the stockpiles of Mexican criminal gangs. Unlike guns, bullets have no serial numbers and are difficult to trace. But its safe to assume that for every thousand rounds of ammo seized at the border, thousands more make it into the hands of the gangs.
Mexican groups have a special incentive to buy bullets in bulk. The weapons favoured by groups like the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel — including an AK-47 knock-off known as the “cuerno de chivo” — are high-power assault weapons which can fire up to one full round with each pull of the trigger. Considering that bullets are expensive and difficult to obtain in Mexico, criminal groups which need to buy cheap bullets en masse find U.S. border states are the most convenient place to do so.
The problem is not limited to Arizona. Texas has similarly weak regulations, and as a result, buyers can buy hundreds of thousands of ammo rounds online, or buy in bulk at different stores on a weekly basis. Because Texas has two highways — the 281 and the 77 — which run from the Mexican border to the northernmost parts of the U.S., the state makes a convenient smuggling corridor for arms traffickers looking to buy ammunition in stores across the country. And like Arizona, there is a profileration of gun dealers along Texas’ border, with at least 72 dealers in El Paso county alone, just over the border from Mexican murder capital Juarez.
Because there are no legal requirements to report mass sales of ammunition, U.S. law enforcement agencies have little ability to identify and track suspicious purchases. This is basically the same problem facing agencies like the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) when it comes to breaking up gun trafficking networks. Earlier this year, the U.S. government tried to push through new regulations which would require stores to report when two or more semi-automatics are sold to a single purchaser within a five-day period. Predictably, the move met stiff opposition from the pro-gun lobby.
Alongside the increasing flow of bullets from Arizona to Mexico, the state has registered a record amount of firearms sold this year. The Arizona Republic reports that an estimated 350,000 guns have been sold so far in 2011, a number which includes weapons bought from retailers, as well as estimates for weapons bought at gun shows or through private transactions, for which there are no official records.