The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has released records detailing the origin of guns smuggled from the United States to Mexico and Central America, marking just the second time in more than 20 years that the agency has disclosed the contents of its firearms tracing database. 

The records form the basis of a new report from Stop US Arms to Mexico, a nonprofit in Oakland, California, that works to prevent gun trafficking. According to the report, more than 50,000 firearms were smuggled over the U.S. border into Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador between 2015 and 2022. The weapons traced back to nearly every U.S. ZIP code, indicating that the sources of crime guns trafficked to Mexico and Central America are not as heavily concentrated along the southern border as previously thought. 

John Lindsay-Poland, the founder and coordinator of Stop US Arms to Mexico, said the records underscore the need for U.S. policymakers to take a more systematic approach to tackling cross-border gun trafficking. “This data shows us that the market for guns in the United States is so large and so porous that going after individual straw buyers is not a winning strategy,” he said, using a term for intermediaries who buy guns on behalf of traffickers. “We need to look upstream, at the unregulated market that provides such easy access to traffickers.”

Lindsay-Poland obtained the trafficking data after a yearslong legal battle with the ATF. In March 2021, he submitted a public records request seeking information on the number of guns recovered from crime scenes in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, broken down by the U.S. states, counties, and ZIP codes where they were purchased. 

The four countries cited by Lindsay-Poland face some of the worst homicide rates in the world, driven largely by shootings carried out with guns produced or sold in the United States. 

The ATF initially denied Lindsay-Poland’s request, citing limitations placed on the disclosure of firearms trace data by the federal government. As The Trace has previously reported, the ATF tracks the origins of hundreds of thousands of crime guns recovered by domestic and foreign law enforcement each year. These records, known as traces, have been a black box to the public since 2003, when the gun industry pushed Congress to pass the so-called Tiahrt Amendment, barring the ATF from releasing detailed trace information outside of law enforcement. 

Tiahrt does allow the ATF to release “statistical aggregate” trace data, but the agency has historically argued that this exception enables it only to publish reports, not to disclose contents of its database in response to public records requests. 

The agency has twice tested that argument in federal court, yielding contradictory results. In 2020, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers the Western United States, ruled that the ATF had to disclose the number of former police guns that had turned up at crime scenes. (The records became the foundation for The Trace’s recent collaborative investigation into the police practice of reselling guns after departments are finished using them.)

Less than a month after the 9th Circuit’s decision, a judge in the 2nd Circuit — which includes New York, Connecticut, and Vermont — came to the opposite conclusion, ruling that similar data was not open to public records requesters. 

Lindsay-Poland sued the ATF in the 9th Circuit and a judge ruled in his favor in December. The agency chose not to appeal the decision, handing over the records he requested in May.

Victoria Baranetsky, general counsel for The Center for Investigative Reporting, who argued the first 9th Circuit case and filed an amicus brief in Lindsay-Poland’s, said May’s outcome sets a precedent that could make more aggregate trace data accessible to public records requesters in northern California, where Lindsay-Poland filed his lawsuit. However, it remains unclear whether the outcome will affect requesters in other parts of the country.

Baranetsky called the situation highly unusual. “The government had an opportunity to properly appeal this to the Supreme Court and didn’t,” she said. “Now we don’t have a clear law, and the public is left to hypothesize which ruling the agency is choosing to follow.”

Asked how the ATF might respond to future requests for aggregate trace data, a spokesperson said only that the agency remained steadfast in its commitment to administer public records law “fairly and effectively” and would respond to all requests in accordance with the applicable legal requirements and the attorney general’s guidelines.