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Damming the Iron River

Solutions to Stop the U.S. Gun Industry from Fueling Mexico's Violence


In November 2019, an armored convoy of heavily armed gunmen working for the Cartel del Noreste attacked the town of Villa Union, Mexico, shooting at the city hall and other buildings before security forces arrived. The ensuing gun battle lasted two days and claimed the lives of four police officers, two unarmed residents, and 17 cartel members. After the attack “left residents traumatized and fearing for their lives,” police recovered 27 large-caliber firearms, including six .50-caliber Barrett rifles. Many of these guns were later traced back to a gun shop near Houston, Texas.1St. John Barned-Smith, “A shootout in Mexico left 23 dead and led ATF agents to Houston,” Houston Chronicle, August 23, 2020,

From 2015 to 2022, more than 160,000 people were killed with a gun in Mexico. In that time frame, the rate of firearm homicides rose by 109 percent while the rate of firearm assaults increased by 31 percent.2Institute for Economics & Peace, “Mexico Peace Index 2023: Identifying and Measuring the Factors that Drive Peace,” May 2023, 33, Much of this violence is attributed to transnational criminal organizations, including cartels. According to one study, 669 people were killed in Mexico due to cartel conflicts in 2006, but that number jumped to over 16,000 people in 2020, a staggering increase.3Institute for Economics & Peace, “Mexico Peace Index 2022: Identifying and Measuring the Factors that Drive Peace,” May 2023,” 2,

Mexico’s cartels are heavily armed. Yet Mexico only has one gun shop. It’s located on a military base, and purchasing a firearm requires a rigorous vetting process.4Kate Linthicum, “There is only one gun store in all of Mexico. So why is gun violence soaring?” Los Angeles Times, May 24, 2018, There are also no domestic manufacturers of guns for civilians in Mexico. It turns out that the rampant gun violence that has been called a uniquely American problem does not stop at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Where Are the Guns Coming From?

The overwhelming majority of the crime guns recovered in Mexico come from the United States. Sixty-eight percent of the guns recovered at crime scenes in Mexico and submitted to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) for tracing between 2016 and 2021 were traced back to American gun manufacturers or importers.5ATF, “Firearms Trace Data: Mexico – 2016-2021,” March 10, 2022, Further, Mexico submitted 97,791 crime gun tracing requests to the ATF from 2017 to 2021, representing 59 percent of all international tracing requests that the ATF received in that time period.6ATF, National Firearms Commerce and Trafficking Assessment (NFCTA), Volume II, “Part IV: Crime Guns Recovered Outside the United States and Traced by Law Enforcement,” January 2023, 2, That said, the ATF’s data is compiled from limited sources and provides an incomplete picture, so the number of U.S. guns used in crimes in Mexico may actually be much higher.7GAO, “Firearms Trafficking: U.S. Efforts to Disrupt Gun Smuggling into Mexico Would Benefit from Additional Data and Analysis,” February 2021,


Sixty-eight percent of the guns recovered at crime scenes in Mexico and submitted to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) for tracing between 2016 and 2021 were traced back to American gun manufacturers or importers.

ATF, “Firearms Trace Data: Mexico – 2016-2021,” March 10, 2022,

An estimated 200,000 firearms are trafficked — diverted from the legal to illegal markets — from the U.S. into Mexico each year,8GAO, “Firearms Trafficking,” 2021, 1. flowing across the border in what’s known as the “iron river.”9Sarah Morland, “US must stem ‘iron river’ of guns flowing to Latin America, activists say,” Reuters, April 18, 2023, These guns are obtained through thefts from individuals or federally licensed gun dealers (Federal Firearms Licensees, or FFLs), private sales between unlicensed individuals, or FFLs selling guns directly to traffickers or to straw purchasers. A straw purchase occurs when someone illegally buys a firearm on behalf of another person who is most likely prohibited from owning the weapon or doesn’t want their name associated with the transaction.10Center for American Progress, “Frequently Asked Questions About Gun Trafficking,” August 20, 2021, Obvious signs of straw purchases include “buyers making multiple purchases of the exact same model of gun, buying sprees over a short time period, large-volume purchases, cash payments and staggered visits to elude multiple-sale reporting requirements.”11Jason Meisner, “Chicago sues Indiana gun store, alleging weapons routinely wind up with gang members and felons,” Chicago Tribune, April 26, 2021,

In its most recent report examining thousands of gun trafficking investigations between 2017 and 2021, the ATF found that 41 percent — just over 3,400 cases — involved unlicensed dealers, and 40 percent, or over 3,300 cases, involved straw purchasers. Thefts from FFLs were involved in 17 percent (or 1,452) of the cases.12ATF, National Firearms Commerce and Trafficking Assessment (NFCTA), Volume III, “Part III: Firearm Trafficking Channelsand Methods Used,” April 2024, 2,

Gun Dealers: Doing the Bare Minimum

Federal law requires all FFLs to conduct background checks on unlicensed customers, maintain firearm transaction records, log when firearms enter and leave their inventories, and report to the ATF when customers purchase two or more handguns within five consecutive business days. FFLs located in states along the U.S.-Mexico border must also report when customers purchase two or more semi-automatic rifles above .22 caliber that accept detachable magazines, in what’s known as the ATF’s “Demand Letter 3” program.

These measures aid law enforcement investigations and help stop guns from being diverted to the illegal market. But they rely heavily on FFL compliance — and the numbers aren’t promising. While inspecting 6,979 FFLs in Fiscal Year 2022, the ATF uncovered 33,526 instances of FFLs failing to keep accurate inventory records and 4,407 instances of FFLs failing to report multiple sales. In other words, the gun industry’s supply chain provides ample opportunities for gun traffickers to obtain firearms without being noticed. Worse yet, as the examples in this report make clear, dealers can fail to stop straw purchasing attempts or willingly aid and abet gun traffickers.

Border States and Florida

According to the ATF, “transnational gun traffickers seem to exploit the same criminal opportunities to divert firearms from legal commerce as…domestic gun traffickers. For instance, traced crime guns recovered in Canada tend to quickly move from firearm transfers at FFLs in states with less stringent firearm laws into the hands of violent gun offenders. Traced crime guns recovered in Mexico often originate from firearm transfers at FFLs in Southwest border states and Florida.”13ATF, NFCTA, Vol. II, Part IV, 21.


Texas, Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Florida were the top five sources of crime guns recovered and traced in Mexico from 2017 to 2021, accounting for 26,001 firearms, or 79 percent of all crime guns recovered there and traced during those years.

ATF, NFCTA, Vol. II, Part IV, 21.

The ATF lists Texas, Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Florida as the top five sources of crime guns recovered and traced in Mexico from 2017 to 2021, accounting for 26,001 firearms, or 79 percent of all crime guns recovered there and traced during those years. Over 14,000 of those firearms came from Texas alone.14ATF, NFCTA, Vol. II, Part IV, 21. Similarly, ATF data shows that during those years, 64 percent of all international trafficking investigations, or 907 cases, involved guns moving from Texas and Arizona to Mexico.15ATF, NFCTA, Vol. III, “Part IV: Source-to-Market Type,” 19, Both states have notoriously weak gun laws.

A few examples highlight how gun dealers in border states have helped arm cartel members:

  • From March 2006 to June 2007, 10 gun dealers in Houston, Texas, sold 336 weapons to straw purchasers acting on behalf of the Gulf Cartel in Mexico — including 14 rifles in a single transaction. Mexican authorities eventually recovered 91 of these guns at crime scenes and during narcotics searches. They had been used to kill 18 Mexican police officers and civilians.16U.S. Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General, “Review of ATF’s Project Gunrunner,” November 2010, 39,
  • From February to November 2008, gun dealers sold more than 100 assault weapons to a ring of 10 straw purchasers in Arizona working for the Sinaloa Cartel.17U.S. Embassy, “U.S. Leaders Sentenced For Conspiracy That Supplied Weapons to Sinaloa Cartel,” August 10, 2010,
  • From October 2015 to May 2016, a gun dealer in Tucson, Arizona, conspired with a former police officer to falsify records and traffic 35 guns into Mexico.18U.S. Attorney’s Office, District of Arizona, “Former Tucson Police Officer Sentenced to 78 Months for the Illegal Sales of Firearms,” July 7, 2017,
  • Between March and November 2016, gun dealers in Laredo, Texas, sold 36 military-style weapons to straw purchasers that were then trafficked into Mexico.19U.S. Attorney’s Office, Southern District of Texas, “Another Firearms Smuggler Heads to Prison,” December 17, 2017,
  • In April 2020, a Texas gun dealer was arrested for selling firearms to felons and straw purchasers, and falsifying records, as part of a larger trafficking ring that provided 500 firearms to cartels, including a .50-caliber rifle.20See U.S. Attorney’s Office, Southern District of Texas, “Federal firearm licensee arrested for prohibited sales,” April 30, 2020,; and “Leader of firearms ring convicted,” April 12, 2022,
  • In July 2022, ATF agents uncovered a trafficking ring involving seven straw purchasers who acquired over 150 guns from an FFL in Arlington, Texas, that were later smuggled into Mexico. The firearms included several high-powered, semi-automatic FN SCAR rifles, including two that the FFL sold to the same customer within three days of each other. According to the ATF, surveillance footage also showed the trafficker enter the store with one of his straw purchasers and gesture toward the FN SCAR rifles on display multiple times before he left the straw purchaser to complete the transaction.21See Julian Resendiz, “Seven charged with making ‘straw’ purchases of guns destined for Mexico,” KSWB, September 7, 2023,; and Criminal Complaint, U.S. v. Rivas-Chairez, No. 4:22-cr-00288-P (N.D. Tex. July 29, 2022),

Beyond the U.S.-Mexico Border

Law enforcement investigations demonstrate that gun trafficking schemes extend far beyond the U.S.-Mexico border as well. In 2019, an ATF investigation uncovered a trafficking ring based out of Racine, Wisconsin, that smuggled “more than $600,000 of high-end military-style firearms in under a year” — including .50-caliber Barrett sniper rifles, as discussed below — to one of Mexico’s top fentanyl trafficking gangs, the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG), by way of California. According to two former ATF agents, “From North Carolina to Oregon, the CJNG network reached deep into the United States to find and buy heavier, rarer firearms. Far from the border cities that are the usual sources of weapons for Mexico’s criminal groups, relaxed surveillance can make such weapons easier to buy in quantity.”22Sarah Kinosian, “How a factory city in Wisconsin fed military-grade weapons to a Mexican cartel,” Reuters, December 9, 2023, The ATF traced another Barrett rifle recovered from a Mexican cartel “back to a state on the eastern seaboard” in 2022.23Nathaniel Janowitz, “The US Hunt for Cartel Sniper Rifles in Mexico,” Vice News, March 31, 2022,

Years earlier, a man in Florida was arrested for straw purchasing multiple high-powered rifles from FFLs in Florida at the request of a cartel, and since late 2019, three of those firearms have been recovered in Mexico.24U.S. Attorney’s Office, Middle District of Florida, “Lehigh Acres Man Sentenced To Federal Prison For Straw Purchasing Firearms For A Mexican Drug Cartel,” November 14, 2022, In December 2022, individuals connected to Mexican drug cartel members purchased, or attempted to purchase, multiple .50-caliber rifles from FFLs in Alabama, Iowa, and Oklahoma.25See Criminal Complaint, U.S. v. Lopez, No. 23-CR-00196 (N.D. Okla. June 2, 2023), ; and Plea Agreement, U.S. v. Lopez, No. 23-CR-00196 (N.D. Okla. Feb. 1, 2024), And in October 2023, a defendant in Nevada pleaded guilty to purchasing AK-style rifles in multiple sales for “cartel types.”26Plea Agreement, U.S. v. Wilson, No. 23-CR-00073 (D. Nev. Oct. 31, 2023),

As an ATF special agent noted after investigating straw purchases involving .50-caliber rifles in another case in Alabama, “Based on my training and experience, firearms traffickers attempt to avoid detection of the purchase of bulk quantities of long guns by traveling out of the border states” where, as mentioned, FFLs are required to report when customers purchase two or more semi-automatic rifles within five consecutive business days.27Criminal Complaint, U.S. v. Duran, No. 23-CR-00191 (N.D. Ala. May 12, 2023),

Finally, a recent report from Mexico’s Secretariat of Security and Citizen Protection (SSPC) indicates that crime guns recovered in Chiapas, Mexico, were first trafficked from Washington, Utah, Colorado, Missouri, Georgia, and Florida — states that are hundreds if not thousands of miles from the U.S.-Mexico border.28Secretariat of Security and Citizen Protection, “Segundo Informe Semestral de la Feurza Armada Permanente en Tareas de Seguridad Publica,” November 2023, 87, This mirrors U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports noting that Washington, Nevada, Colorado, Oklahoma, Illinois, and Florida were “top source states” for crime guns recovered in Mexico, in addition to the four Southwest border states, from 2004 to 2014.29See GAO, “Firearms Trafficking: U.S. Efforts to Combat Arms Trafficking to Mexico Face Planning and Coordination Challenges,” June 18, 2009, 20,; and GAO, “Firearms Trafficking: U.S. Efforts to Combat Firearms Trafficking to Mexico Have Improved, but Some Collaboration Challenges Remain,” January 2016, 15, One GAO report even included a map of primary gun trafficking routes (shown below), noting that the “firearms are normally transported across the border by personal or commercial vehicle because, according to U.S. and Mexican government officials, the drug cartels have found these methods to have a high likelihood of success.”30GAO, “Firearms Trafficking,” 2009, 22.

Primary trafficking routes from the U.S. into Mexico. (GAO image adapted from ATF data.)

The Gun Industry’s Push for Deadlier Weapons Aids Cartels

While the majority of crime guns recovered and traced in Mexico are pistols, as is the case in the United States, rifles are “more prevalent among traced crime guns recovered outside the U.S. (26%) relative to crime guns recovered in the U.S. (12%).”31ATF, NFCTA, Vol. II, Part IV, 14.

The types of rifles are important. The top five manufacturers of rifles recovered at crime scenes internationally include Romarm/Cugir and Century Arms, which primarily produce and import semi-automatic AK-style rifles, respectively, as well as Anderson Manufacturing, Colt, and DPMS/Panther Arms, which primarily produce semi-automatic AR-style rifles.32ATF, NFCTA, Vol. II, Part IV, 13. These are military-style assault weapons that utilize high-capacity magazines and can easily be converted into fully automatic machine guns through the use of auto sears and other rapid-fire devices.

Another example: Between 2007 and 2008, a Phoenix, Arizona, gun shop sold more than 650 AK-47s to straw purchasers recruited by a cartel. According to an ATF supervisor working on the case, the gun dealer “knowingly, willingly sold these weapons, and he even gave our guys undercover tips on how to evade the police.” Many of those trafficked rifles were later recovered at crime scenes across Mexico.33“ATF: Phoenix Gun Dealer Supplied Mexican Drug Cartels,” ABC News, May 6, 2008,

It is no coincidence that cartels choose the same types of assault weapons, namely AR-15s and AK-47s, that have been used in the deadliest mass shootings in the United States.

To make matters worse, traffickers and even FFLs have taken advantage of another firearms industry innovation — “ghost gun” kits that allow people to build their own unserialized firearms in minutes — to arm cartels with AR-15s that lack serial numbers and thus cannot be traced by law enforcement. For example, a New Braunfels, Texas, gun dealer was recently indicted for smuggling 4,800 untraceable AR-15s, including at least 180 illegal short-barreled rifles that are easier to conceal, into Mexico between 2018 and 2022. In another case, a drug and gun trafficker from Texas bragged that he smuggled “hundreds of firearms” to cartels in Mexico before he was arrested in July 2023, including untraceable AR-15s converted into machine guns.34U.S. Attorney’s Office, Southern District of Texas, “Selling ghost guns to Mexican cartel sends felon to prison,” November 14, 2023,

In examining gun trafficking investigations from 2017 to 2021, the ATF found that while ghost gun manufacturing was “not previously considered to be a substantive pathway for criminals to acquire firearms…it is now in the top ten trafficking channels.”35ATF, NFCTA, Vol. III, Part III, 6-7. Further, commercial gun-building kits were used in 82 percent of investigations involving unserialized firearms.36ATF, NFCTA, Vol. III, Part V, 5. The ATF report also notes that 1,394 machine gun conversion devices were trafficked during investigations in that time frame.37ATF, NFCTA, Vol. III, Part V, 9.

It is no coincidence that cartels choose the same types of assault weapons, namely AR-15s and AK-47s, that have been used in the deadliest mass shootings in the United States. These weapons allow shooters to unleash rapid-fire barrages on unsuspecting victims in seconds. However, despite their lethality and the bloodshed caused by assault weapons, the gun industry has continued to produce military-style firearms at a blistering pace since the federal ban on assault weapons expired in 2004, putting profits before public safety. Not only has the gun industry’s trade association, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, helped gun manufacturers sell more assault weapons, but the organization has also attempted to rebrand them “modern sporting rifles” in an effort to play down the danger these guns pose to public safety on both sides of the border.

As highlighted by the trafficking incidents above, cartels are particularly interested in obtaining .50-caliber rifles — like the semi-automatic sniper rifles manufactured by Barrett Firearms in Tennessee — because they are powerful enough to down helicopters, disable vehicle engines, and penetrate armor at great distances. Cartels have “orchestrated sophisticated attacks on Mexican security forces, with increasing use of .50 caliber rifles, modified fully automatic rifles, and belt-fed machine guns.”38GAO, “Firearms Trafficking,” 2021, 4. Between 2017 and 2018, Texas gun dealers sold 225 AK-47s and AR-15s to a trafficker and six accomplices working for the Cartel del Noreste, a faction of Los Zetas. The $300,000 worth of guns included 14 Century Arms AK-47s, at least 14 Colt, Smith & Wesson, and Ruger AR-15s, and at least four Barrett .50-caliber sniper rifles.39Criminal Complaint U.S. v. Jose J. Soto, No. 6:18-cr-00145-1 (S.D. Tex. December 5, 2018),

Yet Barrett Firearms continues to sell .50-caliber rifles to military customers as well as civilians in the United States. The company even uses ads and social media posts depicting soldiers with its weapons as a way to legitimize its products for civilians, a common practice among gun manufacturers, including Century Arms, Colt, and Smith & Wesson. For example, Century Arms calls one of the AK-47s that it sells to civilians the “Paratrooper” model, and states another is “[b]ased on a design for Romanian military ranger teams.”

Since 1964, Colt has relied on its military contract for select-fire AR-15s (dubbed “M16s” by the U.S. military) to help market semi-automatic versions to civilians. A 1965 Colt ad called the civilian AR-15 a “Hot Combat Rifle for Sport” from “the jungles of Vietnam” that is an “exact duplicate of the military version except for one alteration.” As Colt noted, “Because machine guns are illegal for civilian use, the action is semiautomatic rather than fully automatic.” However, as mentioned, such weapons are easy to convert into machine guns, and today, Colt still uses the military heritage of the M16, and the shorter M4 carbine, to market a variety of AR-15s to civilians, including the “Enhanced Patrol Rifle” and the LE6920 series, which “shares many features of its combat-proven brother, the Colt M4.”

For its part, Smith & Wesson has used images of soldiers and law enforcement personnel to market “Military & Police” (M&P) branded AR-style rifles to civilians, though the company does not have any contracts with the U.S. military.

The Gun Industry’s Practices Endanger Mexicans and Americans Alike

When cartels get their hands on American-made or imported guns, like .50-caliber rifles that can stop car engines and down helicopters, there are serious consequences: These guns help aid and abet the illegal drug trade, such as fentanyl trafficking,40DEA Intelligence Report, “Fentanyl Flow to the United States,” January 2020, and threaten the lives of law enforcement officers working on the front lines as well as American and Mexican citizens caught in the crossfire. For instance, in March 2023, a firearm purchased in the United States and trafficked to a Mexican cartel by a U.S. citizen was used in the kidnapping and murder of U.S. citizens in Matamoras, Mexico.41U.S. Attorney’s Office, Southern District of Texas, “Texan admits to firearms offense linked to Matamoros murder of U.S. citizens,” May 17, 2023,

By continuing to produce powerful, military-grade weapons for civilians in the United States — and continuing to supply them to unscrupulous gun dealers who ignore obvious warning signs and sell guns to straw purchasers — American gun makers threaten public safety and security in Mexico and the United States as well as other countries in the Western Hemisphere. An ongoing analysis by the Violence Policy Center using ATF data and court documents confirms that “military-style semiautomatic firearms easily available on the U.S. civilian gun market comprise a significant portion of the weapons illegally trafficked to Mexico and other Latin American and Caribbean countries.”42Violence Policy Center, “Cross-Border Gun Trafficking,” updated October 20, 2023,

Mexico’s Lawsuits Against U.S. Gun Makers and Dealers

To address this dangerous situation, the Mexican government has filed two separate lawsuits against members of the U.S. gun industry. The first lawsuit alleges that gun makers Barrett Firearms, Beretta, Century Arms, Colt, Glock, Ruger, and Smith & Wesson, and distributor Interstate Arms, have undermined Mexico’s strict gun laws and “design, market, distribute, and sell guns in ways they know routinely arm the drug cartels in Mexico.” Further, the lawsuit alleges the defendants “know how to make and sell their guns to prevent this illegal trade…[but] instead choose to continue supplying the criminal gun market in Mexico — because they profit from it.”

The second lawsuit names five Arizona gun dealers as defendants — Diamondback Shooting Sports, SnG Tactical, The Hub, Ammo A-Z, and Sprague’s Sports — alleging that they “systematically participate in trafficking military-style weapons and ammunition to drug cartels in Mexico by supplying gun traffickers.” The complaints for both lawsuits include dozens of examples of gun trafficking cases involving members of the gun industry, in addition to those mentioned in this report.

While the gun industry enjoys broad legal protections due to the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA) that was signed into law in 2005, in January 2024, the First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Mexico’s lawsuit against the gun makers can proceed because Mexico’s complaint “adequately alleges that defendants have been aiding and abetting the sale of firearms by dealers in knowing violation of relevant state and federal laws,” a “type of claim that is statutorily exempt from the PLCAA’s general prohibition.”

Similarly, a U.S. district judge in Arizona ruled that the lawsuit against gun dealers can proceed for substantially the same reasons, writing that the PLCAA does not protect members of the gun industry who have “knowingly violated a State or Federal statute applicable to the sale or marketing of the product,” and that Mexico’s lawsuit alleges the dealers “knowingly violated…firearm-specific laws of the United States, including unlicensed firearm dealing and exportation, straw sales, firearm trafficking, and false entries on ATF Form 4473” transaction records.

According to the judge, Mexico’s complaint “plausibly alleges that, as a result of red flags including straw sales, bulk sales, cash sales, and repeat sales of military-style weapons favored by Mexican cartels, Defendants knew or should have known that firearms they sold would ultimately be provided to and used by cartel members for unlawful purposes in Mexico, resulting in violence and economic harm.”

Solutions to Help Stop the Flow of Illegal Guns into Mexico

As Mexico’s lawsuits continue to work their way through the courts, much more can be done to stem the tide of guns flowing from the United States into Mexico and protect citizens on both sides of the border.

This is an American problem: It is primarily the U.S. firearms industry — our gun manufacturers and sellers, and the groups that enable them, here in the United States — fueling Mexico’s gun violence crisis.

A significant first step is the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act (BSCA) signed into law in June 2022. Among other things, the BSCA created the first-ever federal firearms offenses for trafficking and straw purchasing. The ATF and the Department of Justice have since put these new tools to use. On January 5, 2024, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced that since the BSCA was enacted, the Department has charged “over 300 defendants” under its firearms trafficking and straw purchasing provisions.43U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Public Affairs, “Attorney General Merrick B. Garland Delivers Remarks on Combating Violent Crime,” January 5, 2024, And according to a December 2023 report from Senator Gillibrand (D-NY), 207 defendants across at least 20 states had been charged under BSCA’s trafficking statute, and that law enforcement had seized more than 1,300 firearms from suspected traffickers under the BSCA’s forfeiture and fines statute, as of October 31, 2023. Of those 1,300-plus firearms, at least 190 were AR-style weapons and 150 were ghost guns. Law enforcement also seized 176 devices that convert semi-automatic firearms into machine guns.44Office of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, “Firearms Trafficking & Mental Health in the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act: A Review of Implementation and Successes,” December 2023,


In its latest report examining thousands of gun trafficking investigations, the ATF identified unlicensed dealers as being involved in more cases than any other trafficking channel, representing 41 percent of the investigations (or 3,404 cases).

ATF, NFCTA, Vol. III, Part III, 2.

The BSCA also amended federal law to clarify that those “engaged in the business” of dealing in firearms to “predominantly earn a profit” must obtain FFLs and conduct background checks on potential customers. To implement this provision “on the ground,” the ATF recently finalized a rule that provides clear guidelines for when people need to become FFLs to help crack down on no-background-check gun sales from unlicensed sellers.45 See White House Briefing Room, “FACT SHEET: Biden-⁠Harris Administration Takes Another Life-Saving Step to Keep Guns Out of Dangerous Hands,” August 31, 2023,; and ATF, “Definition of ‘Engaged in the Business’ as a Dealer in Firearms,” accessed April 15, 2024, In December 2023, the Department of Justice said that “over the past five years, federal prosecutors have charged over 1,300 defendants with unlicensed firearms dealing,”46William Melhado, “Feds arrest five men accused of smuggling illegally purchased guns to cartels in Mexico,” Texas Tribune, March 25, 2024, and in its latest report examining thousands of gun trafficking investigations, the ATF identified unlicensed dealers as being involved in more cases than any other trafficking channel, representing 41 percent of the investigations (or 3,404 cases), followed by straw purchasers with 40 percent, or 3,305 cases.47ATF, NFCTA, Vol. III, Part III, 2. If fully implemented and enforced, the ATF’s “engaged in the business” rule will make it much harder for those prohibited from purchasing firearms, including traffickers, to obtain them — and it will help law enforcement detect and stop them if they do.

These measures represent significant efforts to stop gun trafficking, but more must be done to keep the gun industry in check and seal the cracks that allow firearms to fall into illegal markets. After all, this is an American problem: It is primarily the U.S. firearms industry — our gun manufacturers and sellers, and the groups that enable them, here in the United States — fueling Mexico’s gun violence crisis. Our firearms industry is aided and abetted by weak federal laws and a patchwork of state laws in its quest to sell as many guns as possible to anybody with the money to pay for them.

In the absence of gun makers and sellers choosing to reform their business practices and save lives, the Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund offers the following recommendations:

Federal Policy Solutions

On the federal level, Congress should:

  • Provide more funding and resources for the ATF, which is tasked with investigating firearm-related crimes and disrupting trafficking networks in concert with law enforcement agencies in the United States, Mexico, and other countries. For decades, the ATF has been chronically under-resourced,48See Sari Horwitz, “ATF, charged with regulating guns, lacks resources and leadership,” Washington Post, December 17, 2012,; Leigh Ann Caldwell, “ATF under fresh Hill scrutiny in the wake of mass shootings,” NBC News, August 10, 2019,; and Alain Stephens and Grace Tatter, “The Gun Industry’s Watchdog Never Stood a Chance,” The Trace, November 8, 2023, hampering its ability to conduct timely FFL compliance inspections, trace crime guns, and investigate firearm-related crimes in concert with law enforcement partners. A strong and robust ATF can more effectively shut down dangerous gun dealers and trafficking rings that supply cartels.
  • Modernize and strengthen federal laws related to FFL requirements, which have not been updated for decades. Currently, there is no federal requirement for gun dealers to adopt security measures to prevent thefts, conduct periodic inventories, report suspicious customers, or keep electronic records, to name just a few examples of statutory and regulatory gaps. By updating and modernizing the requirements of FFLs, the gun industry as a whole can be held to higher standards — and once again, fewer guns will fall into the wrong hands.
  • Reinstate the federal ban on assault weapons. Stopping the production of deadly assault weapons and high-capacity magazines here in the United States will not only save lives on both sides of the border, but also make it difficult for cartels to obtain the military-grade firepower they desire to fend off Mexican security forces, for example, and destabilize entire regions. Additionally, smart legislation can make it harder for gun makers to exploit loopholes and create “post-ban” workaround models while prohibiting untraceable ghost guns and rapid-fire devices like auto sears and bump stocks.
  • Repeal the PLCAA. Since 2005, the gun-lobby-drafted PLCAA has provided broad legal protections to members of the gun industry, including bad actors up and down the firearm supply chain. While the PLCAA does contain narrow exceptions, the gun industry’s broad immunity should be repealed outright — forcing it to play by the same rules as every other industry, and allowing gun makers and sellers to be held accountable when their actions result in harm.

State Policy Solutions

In lieu of the federal government passing new legislation, state legislatures should consider passing their own laws to regulate assault weapons, implement stricter gun dealer licensing and security requirements, and empower state attorneys general to sue bad actors within the gun industry who fail to establish reasonable controls in the production, marketing, and sales of their products and create or contribute to a public nuisance within the state.

Law Enforcement Solutions

In addition to enforcing the BSCA and prioritizing prosecutions of gun traffickers, the ATF must continue inspecting FFLs and shutting down gun dealers who willfully violate federal law as part of the Biden administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy announced in June 2021. Such willful violations include transferring a firearm to a prohibited person, failing to run a background check, falsifying records, failing to respond to ATF tracing requests, and refusing to let ATF conduct an inspection.49White House Briefing Room, “Fact Sheet: Biden-⁠Harris Administration Announces Comprehensive Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gun Crime and Ensure Public Safety,” June 23, 2021, While this policy has already led to a number of dangerous gun dealers having their licenses revoked,50ATF, “Enhanced Regulatory Enforcement Policy,” accessed April 3, 2024, it is imperative that the ATF continue its efforts to keep guns out of the wrong hands. Again, this requires additional funding and staffing for the ATF, as mentioned above.

Additionally, the ATF must fully implement and enforce its “engaged in the business” rule to ensure that those who deal in firearms for profit — regardless of venue or marketplace, whether that’s in person or online — obtain an FFL, conduct background checks, and carry out other FFL requirements that assist with law enforcement investigations and help prevent gun trafficking. For example, FFLs must keep firearm transaction and inventory records to assist the ATF with crime gun traces; add serial numbers to any “ghost guns” that enter their inventories and conduct background checks on those who purchase them; and, as mentioned, report when customers attempt to purchase two or more handguns within five business days, as well as certain semi-automatic rifles if they are located in states along the U.S.-Mexico border, which can help the ATF detect and disrupt trafficking rings.

Finally, the ATF should expand its Demand Letter 3 requirement for FFLs to report multiple semi-automatic rifle sales to apply to gun makers, importers, and dealers in all 50 states — not just those located in Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas — as thousands of guns are trafficked from states that do not share a border with Mexico every year.

Everytown Research & Policy is a program of Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, an independent, non-partisan organization dedicated to understanding and reducing gun violence. Everytown Research & Policy works to do so by conducting methodologically rigorous research, supporting evidence-based policies, and communicating this knowledge to the American public.

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