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ATF Gun Traces, A Different View     by Karen MacNutt

Recently the ATF announced its new report on guns used in crime in 1999. The report only covered guns recovered. It could not, of course, reflect on guns not recovered. A quick summary of the report indicated almost a quarter of the guns used in crime were part of multiple gun purchases by a specific number of people. 11% of the purchases were from licensed dealers. The majority of all guns recovered were not stolen but were purchased using "straws." That is, a person who was eligible to buy a gun, or who appeared to be eligible, would buy guns in bulk for the gun trafficker who might not be able to pass an instant check. This practice has been illegal for some time. 62% of the guns never left the state in which they were acquired.

"Before the first report," said an AFT spokes person, "we in law enforcement believed that most [crime guns] were stolen and there was no point in tracing them."

The first step to solving any problem is to accurately define the problem. If you fail to analyze the problem and identify its key elements, you will never come to a workable solution. For example, in war, some people might say the enemy soldier who shoots at you is the problem. With out food and water, however, that soldier is useless. Without someone to organize, to establish priorities and transport the food and water to the soldiers, the food and water is useless. Smart generals concentrate on attacking those things that enable the enemy to keep his army in the field. They do not attack neutral or friendly populations under the guise that they can easily conquer those peoples.

The illegal use of guns has been blamed on honest gun owners without much investigation or analyzation of the facts or true nature of the problem. Some people claim the new ATF study justifies passing legislation limiting people to buying one gun per month. The logic is flawed.

The ATF report, "Following the Gun: Enforcing Federal Laws Against Firearms Traffickers," traced ATF gun trafficking investigations between 1996 and 1998. There were about 1,530 investigations. Nearly half of the guns that entered the black market left the lawful channels of commerce by ostensibly lawful purchases from FFL holders by black market operatives. Almost 60% dealt with straw purchases or unlicensed dealing. The mean number of guns involved in these cases was over 350 per black market operative. About 20% of the ATF tips leading to investigations of black market operatives came from alert dealers. 90% of the cases involving 1,700 defendants were referred to prosecution. 97% of those resulted in convictions.

Collectively this says a lot. First, prior law enforcement assumptions on how guns ended up being used in crime were wrong. It is axiomatic that if you mis-identify a problem it is difficult to find a solution. Second, the supplying of illegal guns is not random but is an established black market. Third, this black market is willing to use sophisticated means in an attempt to hid the fact their operatives were making illegal straw man purchases, dealing without licenses, and selling to the criminal element all in violation of current law. Forth, law enforcement, by failing to vigorously trace guns used in crime, failed to use the tracing tools they have been given by current law. This seriously raises doubt as to the worth of any new laws. Fifth, when law enforcement used the current laws, they had a very high success rate of convictions. New laws could not be expected to improve a 97% conviction rate. Seventh, the process of allowing multiple purchases helped licensed dealers to identify and report persons engaged in illegal trafficking. 20% of those investigated were referred by licensed dealers who co-operated with the authorities. Eighth, current law allowing multiple purchases creates a trap for those buying guns for the black market if law enforcement properly uses current law. Ninth, law enforcement currently has the proper tools to dry up the black market in guns.

The public policy implications are clear. Use the current law. You will not stop a black market industry by passing more laws when those engaged in the industry already violate numerous laws to make money. Most licensed gun dealers are not selling guns illegally and those who are can be caught by current regulatory reporting requirements. What is happening is that black market operatives are fraudulently purchasing guns from licensed dealers for re-sale in the black market. The only thing that identify's the black market operatives by administrative traces, as opposed to informants within the criminal enterprise, are the records of multiple gun sales. If multiple sales are done away with, 20% of those identified and prosecuted for illegal gun trafficking will probably not get caught.

It is naive to believe a profitable black market industry would give up because of a one gun per month restriction on legal transactions. The black market would increase its sophistication in the use of straw purchases thus making it much harder to find and prosecute black market operatives.

One of the most serious growth industries for crime in the United States is identity theft. If they can steal all your financial records, if they can phoney your credit cards, if they can phony your driver's license, some crook can go into a gun store and present identification to the clerk saying they are Mr. or Mrs. Honest Citizen. Unlike the stolen identity used to obtain money on a credit card, you will never receive an invoice saying you bought the a gun thereby alerting you that someone has used your identity. You will never have a blip on your credit report. You will never know someone has been using your identity to buy guns until one is used in a crime, recovered, and traced back to you. One crook with 30 false IDs who goes to 30 different dealers once a month will never get caught. This is especially so if he goes to large dealers who have a turn over in help as contrasted to the small home dealer who knows his customers well.

Even if you closed down every dealer, the black market would continue to find sources to supply its need for guns just as it does for drugs. Thefts from common carriers, thefts from the military, and a growing market in illegally imported guns all could meet the needs of crime.

Boston was one of the cities that provided data for the ATF study. In Boston gun ownership is fully licensed and all transfers of guns are recorded, even private sales. The city recently discovered an interesting pattern of illegal gun use. For years the city did ballistic testing on all guns that passed through their control and on all bullets recovered, however, they never did much with those records. On September 20 of 2000, the new commander of the ballistics unit reported on a statistical comparisons made possible by new computer technology. What they found, he said, indicates that the common fear about a new influx of guns flooding streets is deeply misguided. What their data base revealed was that a limited number of guns were fueling a large number of violent crimes. In an 18 month period one gun had zig zagged across the city getting involved in at least a dozen crimes until finally being recovered in an abandoned U-Haul. The clustering of crimes around a few "highly active" guns, led the police to conclude that a small number of guns were being passed around for use within various groups. Some of the guns were being rented, some were being passed around as tools of the drug trade while others were being loaned on friendship within gangs or criminal families. All of this was done in violation of standing law. As these guns were "dirty," that is had been used in multiple crimes, they were not carried by their owners but were loaned out with the thought that they were "throw always." They were guns you did not want to get caught carrying.

The black market rental of guns had long been suspected by licensed dealers within the city and by pro-gun activists who have urged for more vigorous tracing of guns used in crime. Considering Massachusetts makes the illegal carrying of a gun a one to five year felony with a mandatory one year to serve, and considering it makes the unrecorded transfer or loan of a gun a serious offense, getting caught with one of these "throw away" guns should result in a lengthy jail sentence. While judges often ask drunk drivers where they got their last drink, not enough judges or prosecutors are asking street thugs where their guns came from.

The Boston research also puts a tilt on the ATF study. If one gun is recovered, and the one gun was used in twelve crimes, how do you account for the gun? Clearly the number of "gun crimes" does not accurately reflect the number of guns used in crime. It should also be pointed out, that not all guns "recovered" by the police departments are "used in crime" as you and I would define that term. Thousands of guns come into the hands of the police temporarily as a result of domestic relations restraining orders. Some departments will talk about guns they have recovered without indicating how the guns came into their possession. Such figures are different from guns recovered having been used in crime.

It has been shown over and over when police work with honest people in the community, crime goes down. If police look at the entire community as part of the crime problem, crime goes up. Community policing and crime watch programs are effective because the police start treating honest people with the respect they are entitled to. With that bond of trust, the citizens are able to help the police enforce the law by keeping the police informed of trends in the neighborhood, suspicious behavior, and by appearing as witnesses. A vigilant community is, in and of itself, a deterrent to crime.

If the community of legal gun owners and dealers were treated with such respect instead of being smeared and identified collectively as the enemy, much could be done to improve public safety. Together we could put most of the black market dealers out of business.

No legitimate gun owner wants to see a gun used in crime. We all want to see public safety increased. Dealers know better than anyone else the nature of the honest gun market. The small dealers in particular, know their clients and the markets. These are the very people ATF targeted for extinction yet these are the very people who can help ATF identify illegal traffickers best. Within the last several years, anti-gun advocates have tried to dry up the legal channels of buying and selling guns. They have done this by urging the closing of small dealers, by limiting legal markets, by trying to drive manufactures out of business, and now by their attempts to end lawful private sales. All they accomplish is to drive people who would otherwise comply with the law into the black markets. This is not in the best interest of public safety.

Law enforcement should be working with lawful gun owners to shut down black market dealers. We could do this in a number of ways. We can be alert for people who have a pattern of buying guns that makes no sense to us. We as individuals can refuse to sell a gun to anyone we feel uncomfortable with. We should never sell or guns or ammunition to people who are unknown to us or who fail to prove their identity. In some states, private sales must be reported to the state, in others they do not have to be. If you make a private sale, keep tract of who you sell to and make them provide you with a drivers license or some other ID. If they want no paper trial of the a gun sale or purchase, do not do business with them. You do not want to buy a gun that has been used in a crime or that has been stolen. You do not want some gun traceable to you to be used in a crime. Never participate in a "straw man" purchase of a gun. If the person who wants the gun can lawfully buy it, let him or her do so without your help. Just because someone is your "friend," don't think they will not get you in trouble. If they were your friend, they would not ask you to do something that was questionable.

Protect your identity to prevent it from being stolen. Be alert to and investigate any indication someone might be wrongfully using your name.

Most dealers I know are alert to unusual buying patters. Now that we know this is a way guns enter the black market, we should be even more watchful. Lawful gun owners can help close down the black market in guns but only if the legislatures and police stop identifying them as the enemy. If those who try to legislate into oblivion all lawful gun owners succeed, they will not stop gun crime, they will simply swell the profits of the black market and place the trafficking of guns totally beyond the government's control.


This article was reprinted from Women&Guns, Copyright © Karen MacNutt