HOUSTON - Federal agents tasked with slowing the flow of guns from Houston to Mexican drug cartels face manpower challenges in one of the nation's most high-volume areas for firearm sales.
The Houston Chronicle reports that the Houston area has more than 1,600 licensed firearms dealers. As a result, more people have access to guns in Houston and the surrounding counties than anywhere else in the country, according to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Texas already has more gun dealers than any other state, and more than 1.1 million Texans have sought clearance to buy firearms this year, the newspaper reported.
The ATF Houston Division, meanwhile, has 67 agents and 25 civilian investigators in the area, as well as additional analysts and support personnel. By comparison, there are approximately five times as many FBI agents based in Houston.
Houston remains the leading source of guns that are recovered from the scenes of organized crime killings in Mexico and are successfully traced back to where they were first sold over the counter, according to the agency.
"We are looking for the needle in the haystack, and the haystack is all the gun purchases," said Todd Reichert, an assistant special agent in charge of the Houston division, which is the agency's largest in the country.
Agency officials told the newspaper that due to manpower limitations, the goal is to inspect dealers at least once every four years. Dealers can't have their books audited by ATF more than once a year.
The ATF isn't always popular in this state, where people still remember the Waco siege 20 years ago of the Branch Davidians' compound. The agency has also drawn scrutiny for the more recent "Fast and Furious" blunder that let guns flow from Arizona to Mexico in an attempt to infiltrate smuggling rings.
Larry Karson, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Houston-Downtown, said the ATF has taken plenty of heat, but that it also sends agents on undercover missions that other agencies shy away from.
"Few other organizations will take the time, trouble and expense to deal with the dangers of going undercover against bikers or radical militia organizations," said Karson, a retired Customs Service agent.