When we hear about Mexico's drug cartels battling each other, this is worth noting: They're usually doing it with guns from the United States. A new U.S. government report says 87 percent of the guns seized by Mexican authorities in the drug war there can be traced back to this country. For Mexican cartels who are in search of weapons, there are tens of thousands of licensed gun shops to choose from in the U.S. In Mexico, there's just one. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.

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JASON BEAUBIEN: Mexico's only gun shop is on a sprawling military compound in the capital that serves as the headquarters of the Mexican army. It's sort of as if the only place in the United States to buy a gun was in a back office at the Pentagon. Soldiers stand guard at the metal detectors at the entrance of the shop. Inside, handguns and rifles are displayed behind glass in long, wooden cabinets.

Mexican army Lieutenant Colonel Raul Manzano Velez is standing in front of a display of handguns from Beretta. The smallest pistol is a .22 caliber, and the largest is a .38 Special.

Lieutenant Colonel RAUL MANZANO VELEZ (Mexican army): (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: This is the minimum and maximum caliber allowed for home protection, Manzano says. And it's very limited in Mexico, the models available in these calibers.

Anything more powerful than a .38 Special is only available legally to the police, the military and specially licensed private security personnel. Handguns purchased as home protection can't leave the house where they're registered. Hunting rifles can be transported, but they're also heavily regulated and, again, the selection is limited.

Javier Manuel Eraneo(ph) is looking through the cabinet glass at some .22 caliber rifles. He's a fairly typical customer. He's a farmer, and he wants a gun to protect his fields.

Mr. JAVIER MANUEL ERANEO (Farmer): (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: I want it to shoot animals that are eating the corn, he says.

To buy a gun in Mexico, you first have to fill out some forms and your employer has to fill out some forms. And all these forms have to get sent to the army, which decides whether you're eligible to have a gun. Lieutenant Colonel Manzano says if there are no problems, an application can be processed in about a week. But to pick up the firearm, the buyer has to come to this shop in the capital.

Lt. Col. VELEZ: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: At the moment of the sale, we take fingerprints from the applicant, Lt. Col. Manzano says, and enter their information into an electronic database. Even someone up on the U.S. border would have to travel here in person to legally purchase a weapon. From Tijuana, that could be a two-day bus trip in each direction.

Manzano says only 7-8,000 weapons are sold legally in Mexico each year, and that includes sales to private security firms. Yet last year, Mexican authorities seized almost 30,000 weapons that were in the hands primarily of the drug cartels.

Mr. ADRIAN FRANCO ZEVADA (Attorney General's Office, Mexico): It's quite a hassle to legally own and legally purchase guns in Mexico.

BEAUBIEN: Adrian Franco Zevada with the Mexican attorney general's office says gun smuggling from the U.S. is undermining Mexico's efforts to fight organized crime. Close to two-thirds of the firearms seized in Mexico are assault weapons - AK47s, R15s, .50 caliber Barretts. Franco says these are not coming from Mexico's gun shop. He says they're coming from the U.S.

Mr. FRANCO: Now, these are guns that are not made for recreational purposes. These are guns of war. These are guns that are arming illegal forces or illegal organizations outside the U.S.

BEAUBIEN: Inside Mexico's only gun store, they actually have some of these weapons on display, but the cabinets are clearly marked: for government forces only.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Mexico City.

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