Friday, April 17, 2009

CNN on 90% Gun Figure: Half True

Today CNN finally reported what more conservative media outlets and 2nd Amendment groups have been saying for some time. The idea that 90% of the guns recovered in Mexico in their drug wars come from the United States isn't accurate.

Today on the air they cited the PolitiFact Truth-o-Meter article on the subject:

Obama joins many other U.S. and Mexican officials -- from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the Mexican Ambassador to the U.S. -- who have cited versions of the 90 percent figure in arguing for greater U.S. intervention. For his part, Obama has pledged to commit more money and resources to stem the flow of guns south of the border.

But Obama, Clinton and others have left out important qualifiers when citing the 90 percent statistic, which originates from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The agency doesn't have statistics for all weapons in Mexico, where gun sales are largely prohibited; it is based on only guns that the Mexican government sent to the ATF for tracing and that the ATF found were traceable.

The article goes on to say that the 17% figure used by Fox News and many 2nd Amendment groups isn't an accurate depiction of how many guns from the U.S. are being recovered by Mexican authorities, but would be the minimum as that figure reflects how many firearms have been confirmed to be from the U.S. but doesn't not speak to the origins of firearms that have not been traced.

One noteworthy element of the PolitiFact article is that handguns, as opposed to "assault weapons" seems to be the bigger problem of illicit sales:

Driving up that percentage, Islas said, is the fact that nearly all of the handguns traced by ATF come from the U.S., Islas said, while assault weapons are more of a mixed bag - some come from the U.S., but others come through drug routes in Eastern Europe, Africa and elsewhere.

People continue to confuse "assault weapons" for full-auto weapons seen in the movies, like actual AK-47s and M-16s, and assume that many of the fully automatic firearms being recovered in Mexico are something Joe Blow can buy at a gun shop. The fact is that such weapons are already heavily regulated and one needs federal permission to own one. The "assault weapon" ban from 1994 to 2004 did not cover any of these actual military weapons since, of course, they're already heavily regulated.

But that doesn't stop proponents of renewing the ban from talking about "assault weapons" as if they are the military assault rifles, such as the actual AK-47s and M-16s carried by modern infantry. Usually with the dramatic holding up of some semi-auto civilian weapon that looks like the military weapons people see in the movies and using misleading terminology such as "rapid fire," "spray fire," or "military style" to give people the impression these are full-auto military weapons.

Proponents of renewing the "assault weapon" ban have seized upon this 90% figure and used it in misleading ways to push for that renewal. By leaving out that the figure only applies to the small portion of firearms sent back for tracing, they inflate the numbers. Similarly, it would be inaccurate to state the 17% figure as being the actual number of guns recovered by Mexican authorities that came from across our border. It is the percent of guns confirmed to have come across the border, but the actual figure, while unknown, is almost certainly higher.

The devil is in the lack of details with these statistics.


-- UPDATE 6:44 PM --

Factcheck.org has an article up now that also follows the same logic as the PolitiFact article and the CNN story on the air this morning (though the use of the term "military style" still makes me wince for reasons explained above):

There's no dispute that thousands of handguns, military style rifles and other firearms are purchased in the U.S. and end up in the hands of Mexican criminals each year. It's relatively easy to buy such guns legally in Texas and other border states and to smuggle them across.

But is it true as President Obama said, that "More than 90 percent of the guns recovered in Mexico come from the United States?" No, it's not.

The figure represents only the percentage of crime guns that have been submitted by Mexican officials and traced by U.S. officials. We can find no hard data on the total number of guns actually "recovered in Mexico," but U.S. and Mexican officials both say that Mexico recovers more guns that it submits for tracing. Therefore, the percentage of guns "recovered" and traced to U.S. sources necessarily is less than 90 percent.

Furthermore, the 90 percent figure is based on a badly biased sample of all Mexican crime guns. Law enforcement officials say Mexico asks the U.S. to trace only those guns with serial numbers or other markings that indicate they are likely to have come though the U.S.

Fox News has put the percentage at only 17 percent, but we find that to be based on a mistaken assumption that throws its figure way off. We can't offer a precise calculation because we know of no hard information on the total number of guns Mexican officials have recovered. But if a rough figure given by Mexico's attorney general is accurate, then the actual percentage of all Mexican crime guns traced to U.S. sources is probably less than half what the president claims, and more than double what Fox news has reported.

To summarize, the Obama Administration as well as many gun control proponents on both sides of the border are inflating the figures while 2nd Amendment groups and conservative media outlets appear to be using deflated figures.

The lack of scrutiny before reporting on the figures has misled viewers on the details, and with the damage already done, are more likely than not to hold on to those false impressions without any serious scrutiny/accountability of the media to do its job.

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