WASHINGTON — A top US Justice Department official told lawmakers Tuesday that better controls are needed to help stem the flow of weapons from the United States into Mexico, where they may end up in the hands of drug cartels.
"It is clear that we need more tools to get those people who are buying the guns and illegally transporting them to Mexico," Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer told a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing. "We need to stop the flow."
According to Justice Department figures, in the past five years 94,000 weapons have been recovered from Mexican drug cartels, of which 64,000 -- 70 percent -- come from the United States.
Yet currently the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), a division of the Justice Department, is not permitted to "receive reports about multiple sales of long guns, of any kind of semiautomatic weapon or the like," Breuer said.
"Very few hunters in the United States or sports people and law-abiding people really need to have semiautomatic weapons or long guns," he said.
Breuer said that if US officials were notified then they could keep track of the powerful weapons.
US officials should also be able to "forfeit the weapons and the inventories of gun dealers who knowingly sell their guns to criminals," Breuer said.
Gun control is a politically sensitive issue in the Unites States, where legislators and powerful groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA) bristle at any suggestions of restrictions.
"We have very lax laws when it comes to guns," said Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein. "I think this, to some extent, influences the ATF in how they approach the problem, as to whether they have political support or not.
"And the problem is anybody can walk in and buy anything, .50 caliber weapons, a sniper weapons, buy them in large amounts, and send them down to Mexico," she said.
The ATF has been in the spotlight since the failure of its "Fast and Furious" program.
That operation was intended to build cases against Mexican gang members by knowingly allowing them to purchase assault weapons in the United States, then tracing those weapons to crime scenes in Mexico.
But most of the weapons were never traced, while two of them showed up at the murder site of a US border patrol agent, which led to the program's suspension.
More than 45,000 people have been killed in Mexican drug violence since President Felipe Calderon launched a massive military crackdown on the cartels in 2006.
In August, the NRA said it was backing lawsuits in the border states of Arizona, Texas and New Mexico against a US program to track gun sales.
The program would require dealers in border states to report all sales of multiple semi-automatic rifles whose caliber exceeds .22.
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