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Triggering a Debate

Should Texas gun sellers be required to notify the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives when they sell two or more semi-automatic rifles to one person within a five-day period? The feds, desperate to stem the flow of weapons into Mexico, say yes. Gun rights advocates like Gov. Rick Perry say such a policy would be misguided.

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The federal government wants to curb violence on the U.S.-Mexico border by requiring Texas gun dealers to inform the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives when they sell two or more “long rifles,” including military-style assault rifles like the AK-47.

As soon as next month, gun sellers with a federal firearms license in Texas could be required to furnish letters to ATF chronicling the sale of two or more semi-automatic rifles to one person within a five-day period. The policy covers guns with a caliber greater than .22 and a detachable magazine clip, including the AR-15 and AK-47s, which ATF says are increasingly being used in border crimes.

Gun rights advocates, including Gov. Rick Perry, say the policy is misguided and would unfairly target legitimate businessmen — the gun sellers — under the guise of securing the border.

“The federal government as a whole ought to be focusing instead on securing the border to prevent the trafficking of guns — and people, for that matter,” said Katherine Cesinger, a Perry spokeswoman. “The strategy and the concept is flawed.”

But ATF says the number of these weapons found at crime scenes in Mexico has increased by more than 100 percent since 2004. “According to ATF trace data, investigative experience and Mexican law enforcement officials, a large number of rifles are being used in violent crimes in Mexico and along the border,” acting ATF director Ken Melson said in statement.

The pilot program, which would be implemented in Texas, California, New Mexico and Arizona and evaluated for effectiveness after one year, is awaiting final approval from the federal Office of Management and Budget. The possible hang-up is whether it complies with the federal Paperwork Reduction Act. A similar law for handguns generates more than 179,000 reports a year, says ATF chief spokesman Scot Thomasson.

Thomasson says the policy would speed up the time it takes the agency to detect weapons smuggling, which he defines specifically as “movement of firearms from legal to illegal commerce.” In the current system, the gun has to be recovered at a crime scene for an investigation to start, which could be months, or even years, after the sale.

With the new policy, he says, “a report is filled out that afternoon [of the sale], sent to us, and a lead is sent down to the field. Now we are going out and running down that lead with that individual to determine, did he buy the gun for his use, which is fine; there is nothing wrong with it … or did he buy it with the intent purpose of selling it to someone else?”

Thomasson notes that the policy change was recommended in a Department of Justice report earlier this year as a possible deterrent to increased bloodshed on the border. "Our analysis shows that many long guns seized in Mexico have a short time-to-crime and were often a part of a multiple purchase," the report said.

Meanwhile, the Texas State Rifle Association is busy writing lawmakers to register its opposition, says Alice Tripp, the group’s legislative director. The policy would place the onus on legitimate businessman, she says, forcing them to file mountains of paperwork and putting them under undue scrutiny.

“The idea that you should do further reporting on a firearm that happens to be a style of firearm that is liked by one group of criminals is just ridiculous,” she says. “Why don’t we work on the criminal instead of on the law-abiding [citizen]?”

Statistics on how many weapons purchased in the U.S. have been found at Mexican crime scenes won’t be updated until March. But special agent Franceska Perot, a spokeswoman for the ATF's Houston office, says Texas continues to be the No. 1 source of traceable weapons.

Critics allege the key word is "traceable," insinuating that Mexicans could be handing over only weapons it knows have a U.S. origin. Thomasson says that debate loses sight of the goal.

“What we are talking about is a significant amount of violence that occurs along the border, a tremendous and tragic loss of life and an initiative that can actually have some good impact,” he says.

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