America’s Open Arms

The Romanian WASR-10 assault rifle is a cheap, reliable killing machine. Since 2006, more than 500 of the AK-47 variants have been recovered in Mexico’s drug war, and Mexico has some of the strictest gun laws in the world. Its neighbor to the north, the United States, is one of the world’s largest arms dealers. Federal investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives say the Romanian rifles were bought in U.S. gun shops by “straw purchasers” paid by Mexican cartels to buy the weapons.

Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon has been pleading with the U.S. government for nearly five years to stem the tide of guns flowing south. Arms manufacturers like the maker of WASR-10s ship their weapons to the U.S. by exploiting a loophole in federal law. The federal Gun Control Act is supposed to keep the U.S. from becoming a “dumping ground” for the world’s surplus military arsenal. But arms dealers are easily navigating the law, according to a new report by the Center for Public Integrity, the Investigative Reporting Workshop at the American University School of Communication, InSight, FRONTLINE and the Romanian Centre for Investigative Journalism.

In the past decade, U.S. regulators have so loosely interpreted the Gun Control Act that it’s easy for foreign arms manufacturers like Compania Nationala Romarm S.A., which is government-owned, to strip its AKs of their military features and export them to the United States as “sporting guns.” Once the guns arrive on U.S. soil, an importer modifies them with a few U.S.-made parts, stamps them “Made in the USA” and ships them to gun dealers as bargain semiautomatic assault weapons.

Gun control is a contentious issue in the U.S. Congress. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives, which oversees gun regulations, hasn’t had a director in four years because of partisan bickering. Recently the ATF asked the White House for emergency authority to require gun dealers along the U.S.-Mexico border to report when two or more high-powered rifles are sold within five business days. The move is a small and belated nod toward Mexico’s growing crisis. The National Rifle Association, the U.S.’s powerful pro-gun lobby, says it aims to quash the measure. “The NRA will look at any available options to block this sweeping expansion of federal record keeping on gun owners,” the association says.   

Melissa del Bosque is a staff writer and a 2015-16 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.

Published at 5:12 pm CST