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Obama's other surge

Agents are headed to the border to combat smuggling — but they likely won't be able to the touch the retailers selling the guns.

Under U.S. law, gun retailers are only required to ensure the buyer is an adult legal U.S. resident and clears an FBI background check administered on site.

The unavoidable reality is that these legal circumstances enable American gun merchants, even the majority who are truly unwitting about the ultimate destination of their products, to profit from Mexico's drug war.

Washington, D.C.,-based Special Agent Leo Lamas, who until recently oversaw the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s new anti-smuggling program Armas Cruzadas, said catching a licensed dealer knowingly supplying guns for trafficking is tough because a retailer would only have to administer the background check, then deny knowledge of anything illegal.

That’s one reason why buyers wielding thousands of dollars in cash are able to walk out of any U.S. sporting goods store with multiple assault-style weapons, no questions asked.

“I can’t stop someone from buying a gun, and then three weeks later giving it to someone else,” said Jim Cain, a former manager who works part-time at Fine Gun Shop at Bass Pro Shops in North San Antonio. “We can only control what’s within our facility.”

The ATF has traced nearly 23,000 weapons seized from Mexican cartels to the United States, a relatively small percentage of the total numbers taken in Mexico but still a strong indicator of where many of the untraced guns are coming from. The vast majority of traced Mexican crime guns originate in Texas, which has a lax sales environment and more gun retailers than any border state.

To be sure, many gun sellers say strong moral qualms about the crimes being committed by cartel gunmen have prompted more care. Many south Texas retailers interviewed by GlobalPost insist they’ll turn down money from suspicious buyers, though this risks alienating legitimate customers and reducing perfectly legal revenue.

Such claims can't be independently corroborated, and no one expects a gun seller to consistently turn away business on just a hunch. But on occasion, retailers have called the ATF right after legally selling to someone they considered suspicious, and later produced sales records to responding agents.

“The vast majority of dealers are very cooperative with us,” said ATF Special Agent Mark Seibert, who heads an anti-trafficking group in San Antonio.

Nonetheless, some dealers have found it more profitable to do nothing more than required, or in rare cases, to go all in with the drug cartels.