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Obama Repeats '90 Percent' Stat for U.S. Guns Recovered in Mexico

April 16, 2009: President Obama waves upon arriving in Mexico City

PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago -- What's the difference between "recovered" and "traceable" when it comes to firearms seized in Mexico's bloody war against drug cartels?

The White House says none.

But that's a distinction with a difference, even if President Obama used the words interchangeably last week to talk about the role firearms smuggled from the U.S. play in Mexico's stepped up fight against entrenched, well-armed drug cartels.

"This war is being waged with guns purchased not here, but in the United States. More than 90 percent of the guns recovered in Mexico come from the United States, many from gun shops that line our shared border," the president said on the subject in his joint press conference with Mexican President Felipe Calderon on Thursday:

To some, it might sound as if Obama is saying 90 percent of all guns captured from the cartels originated in America. But that's not what the president means, senior National Security Council Spokesman Denis McDonough told FOX News on Saturday.

"By recovered he means traceable, guns traced back to the United States," McDonough said. "These are ATF (Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms) numbers. These are the guns submitted to the ATF for tracing. That's what we mean by recovered."

As FOX News has previously reported, a large percentage of firearms recovered in Mexico from the drug cartels are not submitted to U.S. officials for tracing because they lack the necessary markings.

In 2007-2008, according to ATF Special Agent William Newell, Mexico submitted 11,000 guns to the ATF for tracing. Those 11,000 firearms were part of the 29,000 firearms Mexican officials recovered at crime scenes. According to the ATF, of the 11,000 submitted to U.S. officials for tracing, 6,000 could be traced somewhere because of the serial numbers or other distinctive markings. Of those 6,000 firearms, 5,114 or 90 percent, were found to have been smuggled from the U.S.

The White House stands by the president's use of the word "recovered" in describing the role firearms smuggled from the U.S. play in Mexico's drug war.

"We feel good about these numbers and that's why the president uses the word recovered," McDonough said.

Just to repeat: recovered doesn't mean the percentage of all firearms confiscated at Mexican crime scenes. It doesn't mean the subset of these firearms traceable to any source. It does mean the percentage of traceable weapons linked to a U.S. source. And, again, that total is 5,114 out of 29,000 -- or 17.6 percent -- in the years 2007 and 2008.