Where are the layers of mainstream media fact checkers?

I realize that gun grabbers routinely misrepresent facts and figures, but the ongoing campaign by Mexican officials to make it look like US guns are flooding their country is getting ridiculous. In the latest, Mexico's US Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan repeats the claim that 90 percent of the weapons seized in Mexico can be traced to the U.S.:

Stopping the flow of money and weapons from the United States into Mexico is critical to dealing with the violent drug cartels creating havoc on the border, the Mexican ambassador to the U.S. said Sunday.

Mexican officials believe that 90 percent of the weapons seized there can be traced to the U.S., Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan said.

"The key issue right now is how can the United States help to shut down those guns and shut down that bulk cash that is providing the drug syndicates in Mexico with the wherewithal to corrupt, to bribe, to kill," Sarukhan said on CBS televsion's "Face the Nation."

Mexican President Felipe Calderon began a national crackdown on organized crime in 2006. Since then, violence among the drug cartels, their rivals and soldiers have led to nearly 9,000 deaths and crime that has spilled across the border into the U.S.

Although Sarukhan contended that the cartels' use of assault weapons rose dramatically after the U.S. ended its ban on the firearms in 2004, he stopped short of advocating that Congress reinstate the ban.

"What we will say is ... by reinstating the ban, that could have a profound impact on the number and the caliber of weapons going down to Mexico," he said.

First of all, Ambassador Sarukhan ought to be ashamed of himself for blatantly attempting to interfere in the internal affairs of another country.

But what I'd really like to know is where are the Mexicans getting this "90 percent" figure, and why is it being accepted so uncritically?

As it happens, two reporters from Fox News (William La Jeunesse and Maxim Lott) took the time to thoroughly investigate the "90%" claim, and found that it wasn't merely exaggerated, but it was so wrong as to amount to a big lie:

There's just one problem with the 90 percent "statistic" and it's a big one:

It's just not true.

In fact, it's not even close. The fact is, only 17 percent of guns found at Mexican crime scenes have been traced to the U.S.

What's true, an ATF spokeswoman told FOXNews.com, in a clarification of the statistic used by her own agency's assistant director, "is that over 90 percent of the traced firearms originate from the U.S."

But a large percentage of the guns recovered in Mexico do not get sent back to the U.S. for tracing, because it is obvious from their markings that they do not come from the U.S.

"Not every weapon seized in Mexico has a serial number on it that would make it traceable, and the U.S. effort to trace weapons really only extends to weapons that have been in the U.S. market," Matt Allen, special agent of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), told FOX News.

(Via Clayton Cramer, who also links this excellent analysis.)

In other words, what is built into the ATF's ability to perform tracing is a validly recorded serial American number -- something which is only placed on weapons manufactured or imported here. I know this from firsthand experience, as I own several foreign-made guns which, because they were imported into the United States, had new, American serial numbers stamped into them (in addition to the original manufacturers' serial numbers). Had they never been imported into the United States (but instead went directly to Mexico) they would not be traceable.

Interestingly (and parenthetically), these are not American guns; they just have traceable American numbers. My Russian Makarov, for example, was made in Russia, but if someone were to go to the trouble of smuggling it into Mexico and it was later seized and traced, it would become another "gun traced to the US" -- only because it had once been imported and stamped here. I find that fascinating in itself. Why wouldn't it be just as logical to claim it was a "gun traced to Russia"? (I guess we should be glad that the Mexican Army does not buy its guns from the US, lest a much larger share of confiscated firearms be said to "originate" here.)

What was not pointed out by CBS is the breakdown of the numbers of actual guns seized versus guns submitted for tracing. Only a small percentage could be traced to the US.

A Look at the Numbers

In 2007-2008, according to ATF Special Agent William Newell, Mexico submitted 11,000 guns to the ATF for tracing. Close to 6,000 were successfully traced -- and of those, 90 percent -- 5,114 to be exact, according to testimony in Congress by William Hoover -- were found to have come from the U.S.

But in those same two years, according to the Mexican government, 29,000 guns were recovered at crime scenes.

In other words, 68 percent of the guns that were recovered were never submitted for tracing. And when you weed out the roughly 6,000 guns that could not be traced from the remaining 32 percent, it means 83 percent of the guns found at crime scenes in Mexico could not be traced to the U.S.

That's quite a discrepancy, and I'll try to analyze it.

90 percent of the weapons seized there can be traced to the U.S.


83 percent of the weapons seized there cannot be traced to the U.S.

Surely, the Mexican ambassador wouldn't be deliberately lying to the American people on "Face the Nation," would he? Maybe we should give him the benefit of the doubt. I'm thinking that what he meant to say was this:

90 percent of the weapons traced to the U.S. can be traced to the U.S.

And it got all screwed up in translation.

No, that can't be right, because not only do Mexican officials keep repeating the 90% figure, but it is being widely parroted by U.S. officials and reported as a fact by mainstream media.

Might the hope be that lies can change into truth with age?

(I guess such hope and change removes any need for the layers of fact-checkers...)

posted by Eric on 04.13.09 at 10:28 AM


What gets me the most is the way they use that figure.
In a story about Mexican drug gangs, they'll note that they are "as well armed as the military with automatic weapons, grenade and rocket launchers and bullet proof vests" and then they'll go with the 90% canard.

So as they talk about weapons that are not readily available in the US, they claim that most of them come from the US.

They're lying, amoral bastids, pure and simple. What's good to them is "good", so any lie told in service to a higher good is perfectly okay.

Veeshir   ·  April 13, 2009 1:18 PM

Hi Eric,

Unfortunately, things aren't quite that crystal clear. Equally unfortunate is the fact that I cannot find the link to a more reliable news source with a longer explanation.

The short version is that 90% of the traced weapons come from the US. Unfortunately, the converse position that all untraced weapons are either untraceable or come from some other source is not based in fact.

That is the logical flaw in the reasoning that is going around these days.

Until they trace every single firearm that is traceable, we won't know anything about where Mexican gangs are getting their guns.

Of course, the whole argument would be moot if we just legalized drugs in the first place.


Dann   ·  April 13, 2009 1:32 PM

Dann, that's not much of a flaw. After all, why bother submitting a gun to US authorities for tracing if it's obviously not from the US? We don't need to know where it came from to be reasonably sure it didn't come from here. The Mexicans may be corrupt but they're not entirely stupid.

Larry   ·  April 14, 2009 12:11 AM


And thus the unfortunate nature of my inability to find the news source to provide as a reference. A couple of the people cited for that story stated that the number of guns that "obviously" came from the US was far greater than the number turned over to BATF for source tracking.

I presume the presence of US serial numbers as a common indicator.

In either case, I think it is a more defensible position to point out the wide margin between "guns seized" and "guns traced" and force policy makers to close that margin with a specific data on the seized weapons than it is to assume that all non-traced weapons came from somewhere other than the US.

The latter position is vulnerable to the potential of more weapons being traced back to the US that would in turn undermine that position.

The former gives us the strength of demanding enough data to discover how many weapons are coming out of the American civilian gun market and how many [i.e. M-16, M-4, etc.] are being supplied outside of the civilian gun market.

Our detractors think private ownership of semi-automatic weapons is the source of the problem. Being able to prove that the problem lies elsewhere is valuable, IMO.


Dann   ·  April 14, 2009 9:40 AM

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