Gun-Trafficking Crackdown Hits Hurdle

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 19, 2009

PHOENIX -- It seemed a fortuitous alignment of justice and politics, George Iknadosian's trial beginning just as President Obama called for new attention to the flow of weapons from the United States to the drug cartels inside Mexico. The Phoenix gun dealer stood charged with selling hundreds of AK-47 assault rifles and pistols, and the case appeared airtight: The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives had secret recordings, confessed confederates and a list of weapons traced from Mexican shootouts to X-Caliber Guns, Iknadosian's shop here on Cave Creek Road.

But on March 18, before the prosecution had rested, a Maricopa County Superior Court judge ordered the defendant freed. And what seemed a showcase for Washington's vigorous new campaign against gun trafficking instead became a reminder of the bedrock reality challenging the effort: This is gun country.

"If you get the money, we'll sell it to you," said Jacob Allerd, 19, behind a table laden with assault rifles at a gun show in Pinetop, Ariz., two weeks later. "It's not hard to find assault rifles, they're just expensive. The cartels are offering a pretty penny. Or drugs."

Drugs being what is smuggled north across the border. Guns are smuggled south.

"It's the whole cycle," Allerd said, "like the cycle of life.''

"But not life," said his sister, Garet, 14. "Death."

Mexican and U.S. officials estimate that more than 100,000 firearms are smuggled south in a year, and 90 percent of those seized from narcotics traffickers and submitted to the United States for tracing have come from this country. The death toll on the border is even more stark: 10,000 in three years.

But the effort to stop arms trafficking focuses on the same landscape that defined the Wild West. And the abiding appreciation for firearms that informs the Second Amendment runs especially deep in Arizona and Texas, which span 80 percent of the 2,000-mile border.

Iknadosian told federal investigators he moved to Phoenix to escape the strict gun laws in California, where the sale of assault rifles is illegal. Investigators built a case that he knowingly sold more than 700 firearms, including 500 AK-47 semiautomatic rifles, to individuals he often knew were "straw buyers" for middlemen who delivered the guns to Mexico.

Rifles from X-Caliber were found at a gunfight that killed eight Mexican police officers, and a pistol from the store was recovered from a cartel boss. Nonetheless, Judge Robert L. Gottsfield ruled that prosecutors failed to prove under state law that "any prohibited possessor ended up with the firearms." Prosecutors, who are appealing, expressed dismay.

"They're talking about doubling the amount of ATF attention, but there remains a bewildering set of sometimes competing rules and regulations that surround weapons," said Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard (D), adding that his office took the case because the local U.S. attorney was swamped with immigration cases.

Law enforcement resources on the border are stretched thin. There are 200 ATF agents assigned to the area, which has 7,000 retailers licensed to sell firearms. The ATF's senior official in Arizona said U.S. authorities especially need to train and vet more counterparts in Mexico to help build major investigations. Only a few hundred such contacts are trusted now.

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