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Image: Dennis K. Burke
Matt York  /  AP file
U.S. Attorney for Arizona Dennis Burke announces the indictment in Phoenix on Jan. 25 of 20 people who allegedly took part in a ring that sought to smuggle more than 700 guns into Mexico for use by a drug cartel.
By Michael Isikoff National investigative correspondent
NBC News
updated 2/10/2011 12:11:39 AM ET 2011-02-10T05:11:39

While drug violence continues to spread in Mexico, White House officials have decided the  situation doesn’t rank as an “emergency” under federal rules, officials tell NBC News. The decision scuttles — at least for now — a controversial proposal requiring gun stores in four Southwest border states to report multiple sales of semiautomatic assault rifles and other long guns to authorities.

The decision to delay the proposed federal rule, which comes amid fresh reports that rival cartels are waging murderous gun battles in the once peaceful city of Guadalajara, drew an unusually sharp rebuke from Mexico’s ambassador to the United States.

“It is certainly disappointing that politics trumps sound policy,” Mexican Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan said in an email to NBC about the White House decision. “We can’t keep on fiddling while the issue of arms trafficking to Mexico continues to burn.”

The gun reporting rule was announced in December by Kenneth Melson, acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, an arm of the Justice Department, as an important step that the U.S. government could take to help staunch the flow of illegal weapons to the Mexican drug cartels.

Currently, federally licensed gun dealers are required to report to ATF whenever an individual buys two or more handguns within a five day period. But in what some federal law enforcement officials say is a gaping loophole in federal gun laws, no such requirement applies to semiautomatic assault rifles, which have increasingly become the “weapon of choice” for Mexican gun traffickers.

Melson and other ATF officials said at the time that they expected the proposal – which had been approved by senior Justice Department officials — to be adopted on an expedited basis and take effect by Jan. 5.

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But after a ferocious lobbying campaign by the National Rifle Association and a gun industry group, including letters from pro-gun members of Congress, White House budget officials recently confirmed that the rule was being postponed for at least two months.

White House officials had said over the weekend that the rule was delayed in the wake of the president’s recent executive order calling for a more thorough review of all federal regulations. 

But a White House spokeswoman clarified that statement this week, telling NBC that ATF had sought to adopt the rule under a provision of federal rules that allows for expedited procedures in the case of an “emergency.”   Lawyers for the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) concluded that the provision was really intended for natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, not for events such as drug violence south of the border, said Meg Reilly, a spokeswoman for OMB, which reviews all federal rules. 

“OMB determined after careful review that ATF’s request did not satisfy the “emergency” exception under the statute and relevant regulations,” Reilly wrote in an email to NBC. “We felt that it was important to move this notice of information collection through the standard review process to provide adequate time for the public to weigh in. Our objective is to ensure that any information collection in this area is as informed and effective as possible – and public comment is critical to that outcome."

Rule still expected to take effect
The White House decision doesn’t kill the rule and aides this week it will still likely go into effect in a few months. “It’s a question of timing,” said one administration official.

The Mexican government has been pressing the U.S. government for years to crack down on the flow of high powered weapons to the cartels. It had been hoping for stronger measures, especially after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton  flew to Mexico City last year and promised that the administration was “doing all that we can” to stop the trafficking of U.S. weapons south of the border.

The White House move was praised, however, by the NRA.

“This was a blatant attempt to circumvent the legislative arena and to abuse the ‘emergency rule’ process,” said Chris W. Cox, the NRA’s chief lobbyist, in an email. “Had this measure gone into effect, it would have resulted in a registry of law-abiding gun owners and it would also have placed unnecessary burdens on law-abiding firearms retailers.”

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The decision comes just two weeks after federal prosecutors in Arizona disclosed what appeared to be dramatic evidence of the weapons flow: They announced they had charged a network of gun traffickers with buying over 700 weapons – most of them, AK-47s — at U.S. gun stores with the intent of smuggling them to the Sinaloa cartel and other Mexican drug trafficking groups.

Click here to read more reporting by Michael Isikoff

It also comes on the heels of fresh reports that cartel violence, which has claimed over 34,000 Mexican lives in the last several years, has taken an even more dangerous turn. Just this week, Reuters reported that Guadalajara — the once peaceful capital of the western state of Jalisco and due to be host of the Pan American Games later this year — has been besieged by cartel battles in the last few weeks, with gunmen firing automatic weapons, torching vehicles and blockading roads.

The White House decision also is the latest in a series of setbacks for gun control advocates, who had been pushing President Barack Obama to speak out on the issue of gun violence and back stronger measures after last month’s shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson. But Obama failed to mention the issue during his recent State of the Union address.

While administration officials have told reporters the president will speak on the issue at a later time, they have so far failed to endorse the major legislative proposal being pushed by gun control advocates: a bill in Congress that would endorse high capacity magazines such as the 33-round clip used by Jared Loughner in his shooting of Giffords, federal judge John Rolls and 17 others.

On Tuesday, officials of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence met with Attorney General Eric Holder at the Justice Department and pressed him and his top aides to endorse the high capacity magazine ban and other gun control measures, including the proposed ATF rule. Holder and his aides “listened politely” but made no commitments, said Paul Helmke, the group’s president.

“They held their cards very close to the vest,” he said, acknowledging that dealing with the administration on gun issues has been “frustrating.”

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Video: Mexico's drug war weapons mostly from U.S.

  1. Transcript of: Mexico's drug war weapons mostly from U.S.

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: Now we turn to our ongoing coverage of what we've been calling THE WAR NEXT DOOR , the deadly war being waged by Mexican drug cartels south of the US border. It's no secret the cartels' biggest drug market is here in the US, but it turns out most of the thousands of weapons used to fight the war, a huge arsenal, are also made on this side of the border in the US. NBC 's Mark Potter has been investigating this part of the story.

    MARK POTTER reporting: At a military base in Mexico City , soldiers use torches and hammers to destroy some of the 90,000 weapons the Mexican government says it has seized in the last four years, most from the vicious war with the drug cartels . In that war, Mexican authorities are often outgunned by drug traffickers armed with high-powered weapons . American firearms agents estimate that around 80 percent of those weapons are purchased in the US and are smuggled across the border into Mexico , where gun laws there make it much harder to buy weapons . To obtain weapons in the United States , the Mexican cartels often hire Americans with clean criminal records to buy the guns for them. They're called "straw buyers." Agents say most of the guns are bought over-the-counter in thousands of American gun shops or gun shows along the border and around the country. Under US law it is legal to sell these high-powered weapons , but it's illegal to buy them for someone else. In Oklahoma City , former state narcotics agent Francisco Reyes pleaded guilty to trafficking guns to Mexico . Prosecutors say one of his straw buyers was the late Kyle Wooten , a father of four in need of money who was paid to buy assault rifles.

    Ms. ROBIN TYLER (Kyle Wooten's Mother): Why would anyone need that many and give you cash?

    POTTER: Authorities say straw buyers come from all walks of life and are paid up to $200 per weapon.

    Mr. WILLIAM McMAHON (ATF Deputy Assistant Director of Field Operations): They're being taken advantage of by these cartels and really providing, you know, something that's going to be used to kill someone in Mexico .

    POTTER: US firearms agents say guns bought in a Houston case were found at several Mexican crime scenes, including this one known as the Acapulco Police Massacre , in which four officers and three secretaries were murdered.

    Offscreen Voice #1: Do you have the tag number?

    POTTER: They also say this surveillance video shows weapons being hidden in a warehouse near Fort Worth , Texas .

    Offscreen Voice #2: OK, they're unloading long boxes.

    POTTER: Weapons bound for Mexico to arm La Familia , a murderous drug cartel . To sneak them across the border, guns are usually hidden in cars and trucks.

    Mr. RICK SERRANO (ATF Supervisory Special Agent): They'll hide them in secret compartments, whether it's the spare tire, the gas tank, camper shells. They'll even build secret compartments to put them in there.

    POTTER: US officials say in the last four years they have seized more than 10,000 weapons headed for Mexico , and they're improving cooperation with Mexican firearms agents in tracing weapons there. But Mexican officials still urge the US to do much more to slow the weapons flow now known as the " Iron River ." Mark Potter , NBC News, Mexico City .

Interactive: Drug war spending, arrests

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