Networks Use Misleading Gun Statistic in Reporting on Mexican Drug War

Katie Couric, CBS While reporting on the ongoing drug war in Mexico, CBS, NBC, and ABC have all cited a dubious statistic that claims that 90% of the guns being used in the violence are from the United States. On Thursday’s CBS Evening News, correspondent Bill Plante reported: "Mexican drug gang violence spilling into the U.S. is the urgent issue of President Obama's visit...A major sore point -- more than 90% of the weapons which could be traced were bought legally in the U.S. and smuggled into Mexico by the cartels."

On Thursday’s NBC Nightly News, White House correspondent Chuck Todd declared: "In a joint press conference following their private meeting, President Obama acknowledged that 90 percent of the guns used by the drug cartels in this war with Mexico come from the United States." On Thursday’s Good Morning America on ABC, co-host Diane Sawyer referenced, and even further embellished, the figure while interviewing Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano: "95 percent of the guns used were out of the United States. What is the U.S. going to do to stop the guns from getting there?"

However, on April 2, Fox News reported that 90% figure to be inaccurate: "The fact is, only 17 percent of guns found at Mexican crime scenes have been traced to the U.S. What's true, an ATF spokeswoman told, in a clarification of the statistic used by her own agency's assistant director, ‘is that over 90 percent of the traced firearms originate from the U.S.’ But a large percentage of the guns recovered in Mexico do not get sent back to the U.S. for tracing, because it is obvious from their markings that they do not come from the U.S." The network reports failed to explain those details.

Gun Statistic, CBS NBC cited the statistic as early as March 25, when correspondent Andrea Mitchell reported on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Mexico: "Sixty percent of the drugs in the US come from Mexico, a $38-billion-a-year industry. But 90 percent of the cartel's guns come from the US." She mentioned it again the following morning, March 26, on Today: "Ninety percent of the guns used by the [Mexican drug] gangs come from the U.S., including the powerful assault weapons that were banned until Congress and the Bush White House let the ban expire."

NBC did cast some doubt on the statistic on the April 14 Nightly News, when correspondent Mark Potter explained: "The issue of American guns arming the Mexican traffickers has sparked a political controversy. The National Rifle Association says the problem has been exaggerated to support more gun control." He quoted National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre: "These big gun cartels in Mexico are not smuggling their guns from the United States. They're getting them through Central America. They're getting them through the shoreline in Mexico. They're buying them on the illegal black market."

On Thursday’s CBS Evening News, just prior to Bill Plante’s report, anchor Katie Couric introduced another statistic: "President Obama flew south of the border today to address a growing threat to U.S. security -- Mexico's drug war. Already this year, more than 2,600 people have been murdered by the drug cartels there. The violence is fueled by more than 2,000 guns smuggled in from the United States every day. Today, Mr. Obama promised a new crackdown." Couric provided no source for the figure, but it apparently came from a study issued by the left-leaning Brookings Institution in November of 2008. The Brookings statistic was also used by Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin as a talking point in March.

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