SPECIAL REPORT: Gun Runners
POSTED: Monday, February 4, 2013 - 11:58pm
UPDATED: Tuesday, February 5, 2013 - 11:07am
EL PASO — Gun shows in El Paso have never been more popular.
Hundreds of firearm enthusiasts lined up around the El Maida Shriner's Center late last month.
The draw for locals isn't necessarily the antiques, accessories or history books, but guns like AK-47s and AR-15s.
One man we met at the show, had good reason to sell his AK-47.
"We need the money. My wife's got cancer and everything, and I'm trying to sell it."
He knows the demand for his gun is high, and people are willing to pay big bucks.
But the question surfaces: after that demand is fulfilled, where do the guns go?
According to Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents, some are ending up behind police lines at crime scenes across the border in Mexico.
"There's no doubt that gun shows have been a source for crime guns for some time," said ATF Special Agent-in-Charge of the Dallas Field Office, Robert Champion.
He oversees all of their operations throughout Texas.
While overall gun trafficking seizures are at a lull, Champion thinks that will change.
"We expect it to increase in the way of some cartels are starting to infringe on each other's territory. And when that happens violence normally comes with it," he said.
That, combined with possible stricter gun laws being debated in Washington, D.C., and you've got high demand.
That is why cartels may be hitting gun shows along the border now, while they can still use straw purchasers, or surrogate buyers.
"These straw purchasers are often given an amount of money, told to buy a certain amount of firearms, and whatever's left, they get the profit," said Champion.
Exactly how do ATF agents know this?
From the guns they collect at stash houses and the traffickers they arrest.
Champion showed us the ATF's vault in El Paso, where some of the guns intended for Mexico land.
But very few of those investigations actually occur at the gun shows, where the purchases are happening.
"There's a lot of politics behind the scenes at gun shows," said Champion. "We don't shy away from them, but we have to have particular information regarding what's happening there."
So, what can be done?
Is there any law on this side of the U.S./Mexico border that can keep traffickers at bay?
Gun trafficking prevention laws have been proposed. The most recent, last year.
But they often have failed to even be addressed on congressional floors.
"It's not an easy thing to do," said new Congressman Beto O'Rourke. "It's made more difficult by pressure groups, like the NRA. And with pressure groups on the other side of the conversation."
Some say parts of the new legislation being proposed on Capitol Hill could cut the cartels' supply, but ATF's Champion says cartels still have a demand for other guns not on the listed of banned arms.
"The reason some of these pistols/guns, are more popular than others, especially the Draco recently, is because they're a lot cheaper and can be bought in a lot more bulk," he said.
"I think it makes sense to look at closing the gun show loophole," said O'Rourke.
Closing the loophole would entail universal background checks for all gun purchases, not just those from licensed gun dealers.
Champion says that won't stop many straw purchasers who buy guns with clean backgrounds.
"We've had several instances, where unfortunately, even law enforcement officers have been illegally buying guns which we've had to investigate."
It seems nothing will be enough.
But O'Rourke says he's going to try his best.
"It's a tough issue but I want to make sure El Paso's perspective is brought to bear in it," he said.