Study Aims For Fuller Picture of Cross-Border Arms Trafficking

By Adrian Florido
March 18, 2013

Cross-Border Arms Trafficking

Topher McDougal, an assistant professor at the Joan B. Kroc School for Peace Studies, talks to KPBS about his report on cross-border gun smuggling.

SAN DIEGO -- It’s well known that many of the weapons used by Mexican drug cartels are smuggled into Mexico from the United States. But knowing exactly how many has been hard. Seizures at the border and in the Mexican interior paint an incomplete picture, and U.S. authorities don’t publish detailed data about where guns in the U.S. are being bought, making it difficult to know where they might be headed.

Researchers at the University of San Diego's Trans-Border Institute came up with a new statistical model to try to get an answer. In a study released Monday, they estimate the scale of U.S. firearms being trafficked into Mexico is larger than previously thought, though the findings come with caveats.

Using their model, they found firearms retailers increase as you get closer to the border, and by extension assumed that an existing business indicates a demand for guns.

They then tried to identify the determinants of domestic demand from those retailers. When they excluded domestic demand from their model, they arrived at estimates for how many weapons are being purchased with the intent to smuggle to Mexico.

Among others findings, they estimate that 47 percent of U.S. gun retailers depend on some demand from Mexico to stay in business. They also estimate that an average of roughly 250,000 guns were purchase to smuggle into Mexico each year between 2010 and 2012, and that only 14 percent of guns purchased with the intention of trafficking into Mexico are seized either by U.S. or Mexican authorities.

But the researchers had to take some leaps to arrive at their estimates. In order to account for how much demand for guns near the border is just attributable to local buyers, for example, they assumed that different regions had more or less of a "Wild West" gun culture that would increase demand for guns. They also had to predict how gun shops might suffer from profit declines if they were relocated farther from the border.

Topher McDougal is the study’s lead author, and acknowledged its limitations, but said it's as comprehensive a study as yet completed with the aim of assessing total gun trafficking to Mexico.

“This is a fairly robust first stab at something that really can’t be gotten at with the current data we have in a straightforward manner," he said. "We really have to rely on proxies; on demand as reflected in the existence of businesses.”

McDougal said more detailed government gun sales data would help researchers assess how big the trafficking problem really is.