TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The Washington Post recently concluded a series called "The Hidden Life of Guns," tracing where guns used in crime scenes come from. My guest, James Grimaldi, is an investigative journalist who has co-written several articles in the series with Sari Horwitz.
In 2006, Grimaldi shared a Pulitzer Prize for helping to uncover the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. Grimaldi and Horwitz investigated how an unprecedented number of guns sold in U.S. stores are crossing the border into Mexico and ending up in the hands of the drug cartels.
The identities of the U.S. dealers that sell those guns have remained confidential by law, but Grimaldi and Horwitz managed to trace these guns and uncover the names of the top 12 U.S. gun dealers whose weapons ended up in Mexican crime scenes.
One of the reasons why the drug cartels need U.S. guns is that gun laws in Mexico are very strict. There's only one legitimate gun store in Mexico, and it's run by the military.
James Grimaldi, welcome to FRESH AIR. So a lot of the guns being used in the Mexican drug wars come from the United States. Give us a sense of the scope, what percentage of the guns come from here.
Mr. JAMES GRIMALDI (Investigative Journalist, Washington Post): Well, that's probably the most controversial question you could ask, at least from the point of view of the National Rifle Association. Really, probably, the better figure to focus in on is the raw number of guns that have been traced to the United States, and that number is well over 60,000 guns just in the past four years.
And when you look at that, regardless of what the percentage is, that's a lot of guns. That's what both the ATF and Mexican officials say. The vast majority of the guns in Mexico are coming from the United States.
And there are some pretty obvious reasons for that. We're the closest. It's easy to get guns. It's not difficult to cross the border with the guns once you get them. And there's very little stopping gun runners from doing that, at least currently. And the efforts by the United States and Mexican authorities have not really been a very strong deterrent in stopping the flow of guns south of the border.
GROSS: What has the U.S. been doing to try to stop gun running from the U.S. to Mexico?
Mr. GRIMALDI: They've beefed up enforcement and opened offices along the borders. They've increased inspections at gun stores to make sure that the gun dealers are actually selling guns to legal buyers.
Part of the problem that you see in guns going to Mexico is straw purchases. That's where someone who's a legal buyer is buying a gun for someone who's an illegal buyer or prohibited buyer. Those straw purchases really put the gun stores in the front lines of defending or preventing this flow of guns to Mexico. Basically, private operators of stores are our main line of defense.
GROSS: You mean because they should be screening who gets the gun and who doesn't?
Mr. GRIMALDI: They essentially are the main screeners. As required under federal law, you have to be the actual buyer of the gun. You can't be purchasing it on behalf of another person. You can't be a felon or someone legally insane or under the influence of drugs, and there's several other requirements.
They also have to submit to a national background check that's done pretty much instantaneously by the gun dealer. And as we found in some of the cases where there's gun running to Mexico, some of the buyers are actually doing it for prohibited purchasers who are then taking them across the border.
GROSS: There are many reasons why it's difficult to trace where the American guns that end up in Mexico actually originated. One of the problems comes from the National Tracing Center itself, and this is the tracing center that handles what?
Mr. GRIMALDI: Hundreds of thousands, over the years, of traces.
GROSS: For the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Mr. GRIMALDI: Alcohol, tobacco and firearms.
GROSS: Okay, so what are the problems that the tracing center has?
Mr. GRIMALDI: The tracing center is required to follow laborious and very complicated regulations that have been put out over the years, largely put in place because of the Second Amendment and at the insistence of the National Rifle Association.
Essentially, the ATF cannot have a computerized database of people who own guns in the United States. The NRA opposes any registration, any registry of guns to be kept by the government. And as a result, the ATF essentially has to trace every gun in a crime gun trace by hand.
GROSS: So you're talking about literally paperwork.
Mr. GRIMALDI: It's literally paperwork or phone calls. There may be some computers that are involved, but there's a prohibition on, frankly, these computers communicating with each other and creating a national registration. That's been banned by federal law since 1978.
GROSS: Now, you actually went to the National Tracing Center, which not many people who aren't agents get to do. So tell us what you saw there.
Mr. GRIMALDI: Well, it's really an amazing place, maybe out of something like out of the movie "Brazil," where you could literally see boxes and boxes of documents that pile up at the tracing center, and the tracing center is trying to process them.
The reason they have these - so these are out-of-commission or out-of-business dealers, and when a dealer goes out of business, they need to keep these records of purchases so that they can search them by hand, and they ship them off to the National Tracing Center.
They can be, you know, written down in pencil and in ledger books. They could sometimes arrive waterlogged from hurricane damage or flood damage, which may have led to the store closing. It's really a bureaucratic mess that even friends of the NRA believe has put unusual restraints and difficulties on the ATF.
GROSS: And when was the law preventing a computer database put into place?
Mr. GRIMALDI: It goes back to the 1970s, after the passage of the Gun Control Act of 1968. The Carter administration came in with a rule in which they proposed asking each of the gun dealers to keep an inventory of their guns so that they could facilitate these traces of guns used in crimes.
The NRA blocked that rule and put in place a prohibition, beginning in 1978, and in every appropriations bill since then, that restricts the ATF from creating a computerized registry of any sort or shape of gun ownership.
GROSS: When you say the NRA put it into place, the NRA doesn't literally get a vote in Congress. So what do you mean by that?
Mr. GRIMALDI: Yeah, no, that was a slight overstatement, but at the urging of the NRA, members of Congress who gain a lot of their support from the National Rifle Association added this rider into congressional appropriations legislation. This came at the same time that the NRA had marshaled a letter-writing campaign that resulted in 350,000 letters opposing this rule going to the ATF. And that was certainly noted by the members of Congress who put this in place.
GROSS: So you wanted to do your own tracing to see, like, what stores in the United States were selling the most weapons that ended up in Mexico. But you don't have access to tracing information. A few years ago, you would have, through the Freedom of Information Act. But that is blocked now. You can't use the Freedom of Information Act to access tracing information. When and how did that change?
Mr. GRIMALDI: That changed in 2003, when the gun lobby, the NRA, gun manufacturers went to Congress and asked them to put it off-limits. And they did that through an appropriation bill to the ATF, basically saying you can't give this data out.
And it basically shut down any news stories that had been published in the past exposing where the guns were coming from, showing which stores tended to be the place where criminals went to buy their guns.
The NRA and the gun industry opposed this mostly not only because of that embarrassment but also because trial lawyers had been suing many of the gun stores and the manufacturers, and they felt they were at risk of destroying the industry by using this gun-trace data to follow the patterns of gun trafficking.
GROSS: Yet, you managed to get access to this information and find out which stores in the United States were selling the most guns that ended up in Mexico. How did you get access to the information? Tell us what you can tell us?
Mr. GRIMALDI: Well, not a lot. We don't talk a lot about sources and methods. And we decided to set out and break the secrecy and find out which gun stores were providing or selling the guns that ended up in Mexico and then taking a look at the gun stores.
And that's what we did. We analyzed their background and the lawsuits that had been filed against them and whether their cases had shown up in any criminal cases that were made by the federal government or the ATF, and not surprisingly, the ones that ended up on the list, many of them actually did have somewhat checkered records - involvement in purchases by gun runners to Mexico.
Now, all of the stores, of course, say that they were unwitting, they didn't know about this. And one of the stores that we had focused on in fact is now saying they were deliberately making these sales in cooperation with the ATF. And it's come out that that store is under federal investigation. The ATF says they don't do that kind of an arrangement with a gun store unless they catch the person before they leave the property.
GROSS: You're talking about, like, a sting operation?
Mr. GRIMALDI: They suggested it was a sting operation. The ATF says, you know, we won't make a deal with a store unless we tell them, don't make the sale until we show up. This store says they were routinely making sales and then tipping off the ATF about it after the fact.
GROSS: So now that you did your own tracing of where guns in the Mexican drug wars came from, the stores that sold them in the U.S., do you have any reason to believe you have information or a kind of pattern that you've been able to map out that the ATF does not?
Mr. GRIMALDI: No, I think the ATF has been very much on top of where the guns are being traced to, and that wasn't really the point of our investigation. I think our point was to show the broader public, gun dealers themselves, law enforcement agencies outside of the federal government and outside of the ATF what these patterns really are.
There is a lot of myth and mythology promoted by supporters of gun rights and others about where the guns were coming from. And I think our story showed that, very clearly, they're coming from gun stores in the United States primarily, and going across the border to Mexico. And why? Because it's easy.
GROSS: So you wanted to make this information public because the ATF isn't allowed to?
Mr. GRIMALDI: The ATF is prohibited, under federal law, from releasing this information. It, in fact, is exempted - this information is exempted from the Freedom of Information Act by a law passed in Congress in 2003.
GROSS: So we wouldn't know about these stores if you didn't write about them because the ATF is not allowed to tell us.
Mr. GRIMALDI: That's right. There's no other way to get it than the way we got it. And I can't even tell you how we got it.
GROSS: Now, getting back to Mexico, last spring, President Obama promised Mexican President Felipe Calderon that he'd work to deter gun running to Mexico. But you say Rahm Emanuel, when he was still chief of staff, stopped anything from happening. Why?
Mr. GRIMALDI: Well, there was concern in the White House, based on our reporting, that they didn't want to upset the gun lobby in Congress. Many strong friends of the NRA in Congress would raise up and probably put a limitation on certain kinds of restrictions.
For example, an assault weapons ban was something that was opposed by many Democratic members of Congress when it was first announced by Eric Holder early in the Obama administration.
And one thing to remember in Congress, in recent years, it's almost been a fact that Democrats can't control Congress unless they have a number of conservative, rural Democrats, and usually that translates into a strong NRA rating.
And so the White House was concerned just before the midterm elections that something that would rile the base of the NRA would further hurt them in their midterm elections. And as a result, that proposal that was sent over by the ATF was postponed until December.
GROSS: So what is the Obama administration proposing now?
Mr. GRIMALDI: They are proposing something that is already required by gun dealers for handguns. They're asking that gun dealers, only along the border, report the sale of what they call long guns, basically assault rifles.
So those rifles that have a detachable magazine and are larger than .22 caliber and are sold more than two guns in a period of time of five days, they have to be reported to the ATF.
If that happens, the ATF can actually go and see if this person is, you know, using it for legitimate purposes or if they're part of a larger ring. It's a key flag or an indicator for investigators trying to stop gun running to Mexico.
GROSS: Is this proposal something that President Obama is proposing as legislation or as a regulation, as an executive order?
Mr. GRIMALDI: This is being proposed as an emergency, essentially, rule that would be required of the gun dealers along the border, essentially immediately, sometime this month.
The NRA opposes it strongly. They believe that if the ATF wants to attempt to do this rule, that they should actually try to pass it as a law, which they would of course oppose. That would put the debate squarely into Congress, where the NRA believes it would have the stronger hand and probably could defeat it.
GROSS: So in addition to writing about how U.S. guns end up in Mexico, you've been writing about how the NRA, the National Rifle Association, became so powerful in American politics. Where does it get its power to influence congressmen?
Mr. GRIMALDI: It largely comes from the four million members of the NRA across the country, and I think it also is really rooted in our democracy.
The fact that even rural states have two senators mean that in many of the lower-population states, you're going to have probably strong NRA membership there.
Plus, they spend at least 20 percent of their budget, or about 20 percent of their budget, annually on political activities that begin at the state level and go all the way to Congress. We calculated that just over the past two decades, they've spent more than $100 million in political activities, which includes $22 million on lobbying and $75 million on campaigns.
That doesn't include such things as voter information brochures and websites that provide information to voters. And, you know, NRA ranking can make a difference in certain states. It was used quite powerfully in a large-money campaign by the NRA in the state of Missouri this year to defeat Jean Carnahan, who was running for United States Senate against Roy Blunt.
GROSS: So let's get back to what's happening now. So, President Obama would like to see this emergency proposal that would require gun dealers along the southwest border to report to the ATF any time that the store makes two or more sales over a five-day period of semi-automatic rifles that have a caliber greater than a .22 and that have a detachable magazine.
Mr. GRIMALDI: Right.
GROSS: So the NRA opposes that. You say the NRA would like to see this being done as a law, because that way they think they'd have the power to defeat a law from actually being passed.
Mr. GRIMALDI: Right.
GROSS: Do you think this is going to be a showdown now between the NRA and President Obama?
Mr. GRIMALDI: It really could be one of the first gun showdowns with the NRA. Essentially, there hasn't been anything else. Some of the gun-control groups like to point out that the only legislation he has signed was a provision in an appropriations bill allowing people to carry firearms in national parks.
And obviously, that's more of a pro-gun stand than it is a gun-control stand. So this really does mark, I think, the first real confrontation between the Obama administration and the NRA.
GROSS: Okay, well, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. GRIMALDI: Well, thanks for having me.
GROSS: James Grimaldi is an investigative reporter for the Washington Post. You can find links to the articles he co-wrote for the Post's series "The Hidden Life of Guns" on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
We'll end this half of the show with a song by Scottish singer and songwriter Gerry Rafferty, who died yesterday at the age of 63. His song "Baker Street" was a top 10 hit in 1978 in both the U.S. and Britain, and his 1972 song, "Stuck in the Middle With You," gained new popularity when Quentin Tarantino used it 20 years later in his film "Reservoir Dogs." Here it is.
(Soundbite of song, "Stuck in the Middle With You")
Mr. GERRY RAFFERTY (Singer): (Singing) Well I don't know why I came here tonight. I got the feeling that something ain't right. I'm so scared in case I fall off my chair, and I'm wondering how I'll get down the stairs. Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right. Here I am, stuck in the middle with you.
Yes I'm stuck in the middle with you, and I'm wondering what it is I should do. It's so hard to keep the smile from my face losing control, yeah I'm all over the place. Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right. Here I am, stuck in the middle with you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.