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Guns, immigration and GOP hypocrisy

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., CNN Contributor
  • Ruben Navarrette: Debates over immigration, guns at the border are a tricky overlap for GOP
  • He says part of immigration opposition relies on worries of gun violence at border
  • But when federal officials want reporting of automatic weapons sale, NRA balks
  • Navarrette: Deep-pocket NRA urges GOP to oppose controls; GOP can't have two masters

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist

San Diego (CNN) -- Where the debate over gun control intersects with concerns about border security, things are getting complicated for a political party that has painted itself into a corner with alarmist rhetoric and short-term thinking.

You'll recall that, in order to justify crackdowns on immigrants (or anyone suspected of being one), Republicans from states that line the border with Mexico spent much of last year scaring the daylights out of average Americans by convincing them that these areas are awash in spillover violence from the Mexican drug war. Before long, the metaphorical yet menacing south-of-the-border drug trafficker became the Willie Horton of the immigration debate.

It worked. People were so frightened that they eagerly went along with the idea of local and state police lending a hand to federal immigration officials by asking for proof of legal residency or citizenship from anyone who they had a "reasonable suspicion" might be in the country illegally.

Personally, I never understood how hassling housekeepers, nannies and gardeners helped authorities crack down on drug traffickers. I mean, how many jobs do these people have? They clean houses and mow lawns by day, and run a multimillion dollar a year drug smuggling operation by night?

The drug dealer narrative would have held together much better if some of these Republican fearmongers hadn't gotten carried away. Remember when Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer warned the people of her state about "decapitated" bodies in the desert and implied that Mexican drug cartels put them there? Never happened. There weren't decapitated bodies. Brewer had to recant the entire statement.

But what if there is really spillover violence from the Mexican drug war, which has resulted in the deaths of more than 30,000 people?

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has decided to try to clean up Dodge City by requiring gun dealers in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas to report bulk sales of rifles. That requirement already exists for handgun purchases. If an individual walks into a gun shop on the border and buys two or more guns within a five-day period, the agency wants to know about it.

That makes sense. Some of those are likely headed to Mexico. And if you want to go after drug traffickers, start by taking their guns. If you can seize the drugs, fine. But without guns, the bad guys can't protect themselves or defend their product. So they're out of business.

Who could find fault with this approach by law enforcement? The National Rifle Association, which claims the reporting requirement infringes on the Second Amendment and the right of individuals to bear arms.

Do you remember the part of the Constitution where it says that people have the right to buy two or more automatic weapons within five days without law enforcement knowing anything about it? Me neither.

No matter. In Washington, the NRA is one of the most special of special interests. And when it rings its servant's bell, the GOP comes running. So now Republicans are also complaining that this attempt by the federal government to squelch border violence and crack down on drug traffickers is somehow unfair to gun owners in the United States.

They include Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and a leader of the GOP's crackdown on illegal immigration. Apparently, Smith is less concerned about stopping the flow of guns into Mexico than immigrants into the United States.

"Limiting the Second Amendment rights of law abiding citizens is not going to solve the problem of guns being trafficked into Mexico," Smith said in a statement. "This rule unfairly punishes citizens in border states who have the right to purchase firearms to protect themselves and their families from dangerous drug traffickers and human smugglers."

But wait. Aren't these some of the same people who whipped everyone into a tizzy in the first place, all but declaring a border emergency from drug violence and demanding that the Obama administration take steps to secure the border? Now that steps are being taken, they're still complaining.

Republicans do make one very good point. Unfortunately, the Obama administration has no moral authority when it comes to keeping guns out of Mexico.

The ATF, the same agency that is pushing the reporting requirement, is embroiled in a scandal because of an ill-conceived operation that let guns go into Mexico. Operation "Fast and Furious" was supposed to lead U.S. authorities to weapons smugglers by allowing more than 2,000 guns to flow into Mexico. The effort was a disaster, and nearly three-fourths of those weapons are still accounted for.

The administration's foul-ups aside, here's what the political end of this border battle is about: money and votes.

Republicans want to pander to the NRA for money and to the anti-immigrant xenophobes for votes. They want both. The problem is that the Republicans can't serve two masters. They can't really pander to everyone. But, on the border, they're giving it their best shot.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette Jr.