By Jeremy Pelofsky
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. judge on Friday, in a victory for the Obama administration, upheld new federal rules requiring gun dealers in four states bordering Mexico to report the sales of multiple semi-automatic rifles, despite a challenge by the gun industry.
The administration issued the reporting requirements last year despite opposition from the gun industry as part of a stepped-up effort to clamp down on the weapons flowing across the border to violent drug cartels in Mexico.
The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives ordered more than 8,000 gun dealers in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California to report the sale within five business days of two or more semiautomatic rifles to the same person.
That includes rifles with a caliber greater than .22 and with the ability to accept a detachable magazine.
Mexican officials have complained bitterly about guns coming illegally from the United States. Tens of thousands of Mexicans have been killed in the drug wars since 2006 when Mexico's government decided to take on the cartels.
Judge Rosemary Collyer, appointed to the bench by Republican President George W. Bush, found that the ATF's requirement was sufficiently narrowly tailored and that it was rational by focusing on the states that border Mexico.
"Congress has effected a delicate balance between ATF's regulation of firearms and the right to privacy held by lawful firearms owners," Collyer wrote in a 21-page ruling. The ATF's reporting requirement "did not disturb that balance."
Gun dealers backed by the National Rifle Association, a powerful lobbying organization, and the National Shooting Sports Foundation, challenged the requirements, arguing they would effectively require national registration of firearms sales, which they said the ATF was not authorized to do.
The gun industry has also said the rules will have no impact on the cartels but rather burden law-abiding retailers and that the reporting requirement was overly burdensome.
"If President (Barack) Obama gets a second term, I think law-abiding gun owners are going to see a lot more of it," Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the NRA, told Reuters.
"These drug cartels ... rape, they rob, they murder they throw people into lions' pits, they're not going to be deterred by a form. That must be some form," he said. The groups plan to appeal the ruling.
One gun shop manager in Douglas, Arizona, a city a mile from the Mexico border, said it would not make much difference to him because he had already become very selective about such sales.
"I'm very selective of who I will sell even one paramilitary-type rifle to anymore, because of the hassle," said Lynn Kartchner. "If it ends up in Mexico, I have to go and testify."
Some 36,000 reports of multiple handgun sales were made from the four border states in fiscal 2010, according to the ATF.
The decision came as the ATF has been under scrutiny in recent months after a sting operation to track guns being smuggled to Mexican cartels went awry. The weapons were not tracked beyond the initial purchase.
The ATF welcomed the court decision, saying in a statement that it was "an effort to increase ATF's ability to detect and disrupt the illegal firearms trafficking networks responsible for diverting firearms from lawful commerce into the hands of criminal gangs that threaten law abiding citizens."
(Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor in Phoenix; Editing by Will Dunham)