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Gunrunners

Investigating the saga of the WASR-10, an AK-47 knockoff and weapon of choice for Mexico's cartels. A Web-exclusive report.

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Guns & Politics

 

An excerpt from "Romanian Weapons Modified in the U.S. Become Scourge of Mexican Drug War," The Center for Public Integrity's February 2011 report.

The Obama administration says the process by which the WASR-10 is imported and then modified to include high-capacity magazines and other military features is perfectly legal.

"There is no evidence that rifles entering the country fail to match the description of the weapons authorized for importation on the import permits issued by ATF," Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said. "To the extent that semiautomatic rifles in non-sporting configuration are going across the Southwest border, they are likely being reconfigured following importation."

To law enforcement on the front lines of the drug wars, that interpretation of U.S. gun laws is the source of the problem.

"They let in just about anything," said Gerald Nunziato, a former ATF official, who is now an independent consultant.

Added Arizona's former Democratic Attorney General Terry Goddard, "We’re declaring ourselves ... to be the allies of the Mexican government and fighting against the cartels. And yet through official inaction, the United States is, in fact, arming the cartels."

Some members of Congress have been frustrated in their efforts to get the Obama administration to change its position.

A group of more than 50 mostly Democratic members of Congress, led by then-House Foreign Affairs Western Hemisphere subcommittee chairman Eliot Engel [D-N.Y.], wrote Obama in February 2009 that the ATF’s interpretation of the law and its reaction to the reality of the situation has effectively abrogated the ban on imported non-sporting weapons. A similar letter was written just this week by Sen. Dianne Feinstein [D-Calif.].

The lawmakers claim that Obama could close the existing loopholes using executive powers -- and avoid a battle over gun-control legislation with congressional Republicans. But the president, they say, seems unwilling to do so.

"We are contributing to the instability in Mexico, and we are sowing the seeds of potential instability in the United States,” Engel said in an interview. “It doesn’t make sense to me ... It is not defensible."

Gun rights advocates note that the U.S. already has a host of laws that apply to every link in the trafficking chain.

"Strong enforcement of existing U.S. firearm laws, and cooperative enforcement programs with Mexican authorities, are likely to be more productive than added restrictions,” the National Rifle Association says in a statement on its website. The NRA declined to comment for this story.

For the time being, the Justice Department appears comfortable with the status quo.

"ATF is committed to vigorous enforcement of the import restrictions on non-sporting firearms, but the restrictions under current law do not amount to a complete ban," Ronald Weich, the assistant attorney general for legislative affairs, wrote back to Engel in December 2009. "ATF believes that the vast majority of the firearms you cite in your letter are lawfully entering the country ..."

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Posted February 3, 2011

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