THOUSANDS of guns and other dangerous weapons routinely purchased in the United States and smuggled into Mexico are hampering anti-crime efforts along the border, where violent drug wars and kidnappings - including those of at least 27 Americans - have left hundreds of people dead. The Bush administration must address this problem or it will seriously strain overtaxed U.S. border security and anti-smuggling efforts.
Mexican officials, as well as Canadians, frequently voice frustration that their restrictive gun regulations are being undermined by America's more permissive guns laws. Citizens of those countries pay people living here to buy guns for them, and those guns eventually turn up in the hands of violent criminals, drug traffickers, kidnappers and migrant smugglers, who then use them against their countrymen, American tourists and Border Patrol agents.
Agents of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), an arm of the U.S. Justice Department, work with Mexican and Canadian counterparts to track confiscated guns and prosecute those in the United States who knowingly buy guns for or sell them to foreigners. But those efforts alone won't stop the problem.
Last year, the ATF traced some 3,600 guns in the two countries - half of them in Mexico - back to buyers in the United States. Yet it's impossible to know how many are smuggled in each year or are in circulation. Nearly all the guns traced in Mexico led back to gun dealers in California, Texas and Arizona, populous border states with important electoral constituencies - ranchers, gun enthusiasts, sportsmen and hunters.
The Justice Department, which cited constitutional concerns when pressed on the issue by Mexican officials, may be hard-pressed to push for any regulations that might upset American gun owners. But it ought to consider that Mexico may in turn decide it's pointless to keep going after drug cartels and smuggling rings that have an unlimited supply of American guns.
It's hypocritical for the United States to press Mexico to curb crime at the border and yet not do more to help. It can start by expanding the ATF's presence abroad, a move supported by agency administrators. Just three full-time ATF agents are posted in Mexico and three in Canada.
The administration also should consider regulating local gun shows where guns can be bought and sold without background checks and without records of transactions.
Stopping the southward flow of American guns to Mexico should be as much a priority as stopping the northward flow of job-seeking Mexican migrants. Until it is, the United States risks losing credibility in its efforts to bring security to the border.