That same day, Newsweek's Michael Isikoff asks the question: Why is Attorney General Eric Holder backing away from an assault weapons ban?
After fierce resistance from the gun lobby and its allies in Congress, Attorney General Eric Holder has dialed back talk about reimposing a federal assault weapons ban to help curb the spiraling violence in Mexico.
As much as 90 percent of the assault weapons and other guns used by Mexican drug cartels are coming from the United States, fueling drug-related violence that is believed to have killed more than 7,000 people since January 2008, according to estimates by Mexican and U.S. law enforcement officials. But the political obstacles to addressing the U.S.-to-Mexico weapons flow are dramatically underscored by Holder's experience in just the last few weeks.
Speaking at a Feb. 25 news conference announcing a roundup of Mexican cartel members in the United States, Holder endorsed reinstituting the ban on assault weapons—a position that President Obama himself supported during last year's campaign. A federal ban on high-powered, semi-automatic assault weapons, originally passed by Congress in 1994, expired five years ago.
"There are just a few gun-related changes that we would like to make, and among them would be to reinstitute the ban on the sale of assault weapons," Holder said in response to a question from a Mexican reporter. "I think that will have a positive impact in Mexico at a minimum." Holder then ducked a follow-up question about whether he expected Congress to act on a renewed ban this year, saying, "I'm not sure exactly what the sequencing will be" on legislative issues that the Obama administration presses on Capitol Hill.
But his comments roused the gun lobby. The National Rifle Association quickly sent out "action alerts" to its members. Sixty-five House Democrats signed a letter saying they would oppose any new ban—as did Montana's two Democratic senators, Max Baucus and Jon Tester. "Senators to Attorney General Holder: Stay Away From Our Guns," read a press release sent out by Baucus's office. In addition, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid both shot down the idea that Congress would take up any new assault weapons ban this year.
When Holder was asked about the assault weapons issue again at another press conference on March 25, he steered away from even mentioning a new weapons ban. "Well, I mean, I think what we're going to do is try to, obviously, enforce the laws that we have on the books," Holder said, adding that he planned to discuss the flow of illegal arms with "our Mexican counterparts" during an upcoming trip to Mexico.
Holder's about-face was no accident. White House officials instructed the attorney general to tone down any further talk about assault weapons in order not to complicate the president's legislative agenda on Capitol Hill, according to administration and congressional sources who, like others quoted in this story, asked not to be named talking about internal deliberations. (An assault weapons ban was also conspicuously off the table when the Obama administration unveiled new proposals to combat Mexican cartel violence.) "We've been told to lay low," a Democratic congressional aide said he was told when he raised the issue of a new assault weapons ban with a Justice Department official. (Emphasis supplied, MBV.)
A senior Justice Department official said that Holder was trying to signal that he wasn't expecting immediate congressional action when he sidestepped the question about timing at the original Feb. 25 news conference. But the NRA was only too happy to take credit for the attorney general's new tone.
After Holder made his first comments about a ban, the NRA started "getting out the word—this is going to be a battle, they're coming," said Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president and CEO of the NRA. As a result, LaPierre said, the attorney general "ran into a stonewall on Capitol Hill." It's no secret, moreover, that much of the opposition came from Democrats, including the party's leadership. During the early 1990s, congressional Democratic leaders aggressively pushed gun-control legislation—and suffered crushing setbacks in the polls starting with the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress. "They've learned the history of what happened the last time," said LaPierre.
But that does leave an awkward situation for Holder and the White House. The attorney general flies to Mexico City on April 1 to talk about steps the United States can take to deal with cartel violence—and the Mexicans are adamant about reimposing a weapons ban. Meanwhile, the White House still lists a new assault weapons ban as one of the president's official positions on its Web site (scroll down to the "Urban Policy" section).
Given that Obama rarely talked about assault weapons during the campaign and has said not a word about the subject since becoming president, should it still be there? "There has been no change in position—the president supports the 2nd amendment, he respects the tradition of gun ownership in this country, and he believes that we can take common sense steps to keep our streets safe," said White House spokesman Ben LaBolt.
It is now the morning of 26 March 2009. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Mexico City. In an interview recorded the day before with Lara Logan, Clinton says,
"We have to recognize and accept that the demand for drugs from the United States drives them north, and the guns that are used by the drug cartels against the police and the military, 90 percent of them come from America."
The next month, President Barack Obama is in Mexico City and at a joint press conference with Mexican President Felipe Calderon, repeats the same meme:
“This war is being waged with guns purchased not here, but in the United States. More than 90 percent of the guns recovered in Mexico come from the United States, many from gun shops that line our shared border.”
He also says 'I have not backed off' on a new assault weapons ban.
Political realities make reinstating the assault weapons ban extraordinarily difficult, President Obama said Thursday, but he stressed he is still in favor of the gun control measure.
Obama, joined by Mexican President Felipe Calderon at a press conference in Mexico City, said he and Calderon discussed the ban "extensively" during their meeting earlier in the day.
Mexican officials have said in recent days that they would like to see the ban reinstated, noting that more than 90 percent of guns recovered in Mexico come from the U.S.
The White House was quick to blunt comments Attorney General Eric Holder made earlier this year supportive of pursuing a reinstatement, but Obama said Thursday that he has not changed his position.
"I have not backed off at all from my belief that the assault weapons ban makes sense," Obama said, adding that he is not "under any illusions that reinstating that ban would be easy."
Instead, the president said his administration is focused on enforcing laws that are already on the books, like targeting guns that are illegally smuggled over the border that are "helping to fuel extraordinary violence" as the drug trade soars.
"That's something we can stop," Obama said.
Calderon acknowledged that the assault weapons ban, opposed by many Republicans and some conservative Democrats, is one of the "thorny topics," and he said it has to be approached with a "great deal of sensitivity."
"We know that it is a politically delicate topic," Calderon said, claiming that his government respects the policies and decisions of Congress.
Obama said he would push the Senate to ratify CIFTA, an interhemispheric small-arms treaty that was signed during the Clinton's administration but stalled in the upper chamber.
Obama said he is "confident" the two countries can make progress on the epidemic of gun and drug violence along the border, but he acknowledged that it is unrealistic to think the problems can be eliminated altogether. Instead, the president said he would like to see drug-related violence reduced to the point it "becomes a localized criminal problem."
"That's the kind of progress I think can be made," Obama said. "We're going to be very focused on this. It's going to be a top priority."
Isikoff, Clinton and Obama were simply parroting a meme begun by notoriously anti-firearm Senators Dick Durbin and Dianne Feinstein during a 17 March congressional hearing.
Durbin said: "According to ATF [the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives], more than 90 percent of the guns seized after raids or shootings in Mexico have been traced right here to the United States of America." Feinstein added: "It is unacceptable to have 90 percent of the guns that are picked up in Mexico used to shoot judges, police officers, mayors, kidnap innocent people and do terrible things come from the United States, and I think we must put a stop to that."
The "90 percent" allegation was dutifully reported as fact by a whole host of news organizations including the Christian Science Monitor, Washington Post, the New York Times, NBC and the Chicago Tribune.
However, it almost immediately came under fire from FOX News. Here is a video from April 1, 2009.
FOX put the number at closer to 17 percent.
On 17 April 2009, NPR sought to submit both statistics to the test:
Now to a correction and a conversation. When President Obama was in Mexico yesterday, he met with Mexican President Felipe Calderon to discuss, among other things, the flow of U.S. guns south of the border. To learn more about the Mexican cartels that are using those guns, we spoke yesterday with Professor Bruce Bagley. He's chair of the Department of International Studies at the University of Miami.
Well, in the course of that conversation, Professor Bagley said that 90 percent of all guns used in drug-related crimes in Mexico come from the United States. It's a statistic that's been repeated by many public officials, including the Mexican ambassador as well as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, even President Obama as recently as yesterday.
President BARACK OBAMA: More than 90 percent of the guns recovered in Mexico come from the United States, many from gun shops that lie in our shared border.
NORRIS: But that's not exactly true. Joining us now on the line for a little clarification is Robert Farley. He's a reporter for PolitiFact.com. That's a fact checking Web site run by the St. Petersburg Times. And he's done a little bit of research on this subject. Welcome to the program.
Mr. ROBERT FARLEY (Reporter, PolitiFact.com): How are you doing?
NORRIS: Mr. Farley, because we're talking about percentages, and in this case, a large percentage, 90 percent, I just want to try to dig into this and try to understand it. We're actually talking about a percentage of a percentage, is that correct?
Mr. FARLEY: That's correct. It's the guns that were submitted by Mexican officials to the ATF to be traced and then again, amongst those, those that could be traced.
NORRIS: Okay, so it wasn't that 90 percent of all the guns, it's just those that were submitted. How many were actually submitted? What kind of percentages are we talking about there?
Mr. FARLEY: About - last year, Mexican officials submitted a little over 12,000 guns to the ATF to be traced, and the year before that, about 6,500. Some statistics suggest that that's about a third of all the guns that have been recovered in Mexico.
NORRIS: So it's only one-third of the guns recovered in Mexico are sent back to the ATF. Now, are they able to actually discern, in looking at those guns, how many were from the U.S.? Are all of them traceable?
Mr. FARLEY: Not all guns are traceable, of course. We don't have exact percentages on how many - what percentage they're able to trace, but certainly not all of them.
NORRIS: Now, this 90 percent number has stirred a very active debate right now, and it stirred a certain amount of criticism. At least one of our listeners pointed us to a story that appeared on the Fox News Web site. And in that story they cite another statistic. They say that only 17 percent of guns seized in Mexico come from the U.S. Is that percentage closer to the truth?
Mr. FARLEY: No, as a matter of fact, it's probably very far from the truth. That number assumes that all the guns that have not been submitted to be traced are not from the United States. And that'd be, certainly, a big leap.
NORRIS: So if the 90 percent statistic is not quite right and the 17 percent number is also incorrect, what is the accurate number? What number should our policymakers be citing?
Mr. FARLEY: Well, we don't know exactly what percentage of all the recovered guns in Mexico, where they're coming from. But, you know, a Mexican official that we spoke with said that the percentage of guns confiscated in Mexico probably is closer to the 90 percent figure than the 17. If not, fully 90 percent, probably close to that. He said that almost all of the handguns that are confiscated in Mexico come from the United States. And that amongst the assault weapons, while a good number of them are coming from the United States, they're also - that's more of a mixed bag. And they're coming, as well, through some of the drug routes in Eastern Europe and Africa.
NORRIS: Well, Robert Farley, thank you very much for clearing this up for us.
Mr. FARLEY: Well, thanks so much for having me.
NORRIS: That's Robert Farley. He works for the Web site PolitiFact.com. He's a reporter there. The Web site is run by the St. Petersburg Times newspaper.
So, not 17 percent, says the NPR expert, but not 90 percent either. This is doubleplus ungood for the administration. The Secretary of State said 90 percent. The President said 90 percent. The Senators said 90 percent. NPR is not FOX. Even their supporters watch NPR, so does most of the media elite and nattering nabobs, as Spiro Agnew once called them. 90 percent has been discredited, at least in part. According to my sources, this did not go over well with Hillary. Not at all.
(At this point, a word is necessary about my sources. Some sources -- and not just the ones for this story -- wish to speak only on background and then not to be quoted in their original voices lest some distinct combination of syntax, grammar or slang point point to their identity. If the narrative below is thus largely devoid of direct quotes, that is the reason.)
According to sources, the NPR debunking of the 90 percent myth did not go over well with Hillary when it was dutifully reported to her by a subordinate. There was some sense, say the sources, that the 90 percent meme should be strengthened by requesting more data on seized weapons from the Mexican government. In other words, the 90 percent meme, previously agreed upon, should be sustained rather than abandoned. There was widespread opinion in the professional ranks at State that the figure was incorrect and that the administration made itself idiotic by clinging to it -- that it was a mistake to insist upon it.
There was also considerable discussion at this time back and forth between State, Justice and the National Security Council of how more firearm restrictions could be had, by administrative rule-making and treaties, without paying a political price.
The Mexicans were demanding a new Assault Weapons Ban with teeth, which coincided neatly with administration wishes, but how to accomplish it without political blowback? There was considerable frustration that no incident of domestic mass shooting had, so far, changed American political opinion in the direction of more gun control. If anything, opinion had shifted the other way.
Proof that the 90 percent meme was undoubtedly bogus came in the form of a State Department cable from Mexico City on 28 October 2009, previously reported on here at Sipsey Street on 31 August 2011:
"Claims by Mexican and U.S. officials that upwards of 90 percent of illegal recovered weapons can be traced back to the U.S. is based on an incomplete survey of confiscated weapons. In point of fact, without wider access to the weapons seized in Mexico, we really have no way of verifying these numbers."
The distribution list for this cable indicates that it went to:
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 8818
INFO RUEHXC/ALL US CONSULATES IN MEXICO COLLECTIVE
RHMFIUU/DEPT OF JUSTICE WASHINGTON DC
RUEHC/DEPT OF LABOR WASHINGTON DC
RUEATRS/DEPT OF TREASURY WASHINGTON DC
RUCPDOC/DEPT OF COMMERCE WASHINGTON DC
RHMFISS/CDR USSOUTHCOM MIAMI FL
RUEAHLA/DEPT OF HOMELAND SECURITY
RUEABND/DEA HQS WASHINGTON DC RHEHAAA/NSC WASHINGTON DC
As the realization that the 90 percent myth line's flank had been turned, the meme's supporters withdrew first to the 80 percent ridge, then to the 70 percent ridge beyond that, where it remains today in the minds and mouths of the firearm confiscationists like Senator Feinstein. Witness this from her press release of 13 June 2011:
About 70 percent of the guns seized in Mexico and submitted to a U.S. gun-tracing program came from the United States, according to a report released by three U.S. senators Monday.
My sources say that this battle of the "statistics" was taken very seriously by all players -- the White House, State and Justice. Yet, WHY was this game of statistics so important to the players? If some weapons from the American civilian market were making it to Mexico into the hand of drug gang killers that was bad enough. What was the importance of insisting that it was 90 percent, 80 percent, or finally 70 percent? Would such statistics make any difference to the law enforcement tactics necessary to curtail them? No.
This statistics mania is similar to the focus on "body counts" in Vietnam. Yet if Vietnam body counts were supposed to be a measure of how we were winning that war, the focus on the 90 percent meme was certainly not designed to be a measure of how we were winning the war against arming the cartels, but rather by what overwhelming standard we were LOSING. Why?
Recall what the whistleblower ATF agents told us right after this scandal broke in the wake of the death of Brian Terry: "ATF source confirms ‘walking’ guns to Mexico to ‘pad’ statistics."
In "In at the beginning, Part 3," our sources tell us how the demand to "pad statistics" from on high apparently led to the tactic of "letting the guns walk."