The New York Times Weighs In On Crime Guns.


Now that The New York Times devotes a portion of its editorial space to gun violence, we are treated to the contribution of op-ed writer Charles Blow.  And what Blow has decided to talk about is what is truly the elephant in the living room when it comes to gun violence, namely, the issue of stolen guns.  Obama mentioned the issue twice in the official White House press release outlining his new EO agenda on guns, but he tied it to expanding background checks by bringing more gun transactions under the rubric of regulated sales.

atf              To his credit, Blow dug up Sam Bieler’s 2013 article which cites data from Phil Cook’s 1997 article which estimates that as many as 500,000 guns might be stolen each year.  And having discovered this incredible number, Blow then throws up several remedies for the problem which will have no real impact at all.  They won’t have any impact because registering guns or requiring insurance for their ownership simply isn’t going to occur.  As for the idea that gun theft will go down as safe guns enter the civilian arsenal, even if a few were to finally hit the market, we still have 300 million+ unsafe guns lying around.

On the other hand, there are some steps that could be taken right now that would, I believe, have a substantial impact on the ability of law enforcement to identify and trace crime guns, a process which right now occurs in the most slipshod or piecemeal fashion when it occurs at all.  And these steps wouldn’t even require any legislation or executive orders; they could be accomplished easily and quickly if someone, anyone, would make the regulatory division of the ATF do what it is really supposed to do.

Why does the GVP advocacy community put so much time and effort into pushing the expansion of NICS-background checks into secondary transfers and sales? Because the ATF has been whining for 20 years that they can only trace a gun through its first, legal sale.  This is a lie.  The fact is that every time a gun is acquired by an FFL dealer it must be listed in his Acquisition & Disposition book.  This A&D book, along with the 4473 forms used to conduct background checks, can be inspected by the ATF whenever they enter a store.  Now It happens that 40% or more guns that are sold by retail dealers are used guns, many of which were sold previously out of the same store. Or they were first sold by the gun shop in the next town. Can the ATF ask a dealer to tell them the particulars of the last, as opposed to the first sale of a particular gun?  Of course they can – they own the entire contents of the A&D book.

The ATF trumpets the development of time-to-crime data which, they say, alerts them to questionable dealer behavior because the average TTC right now is about 12 years, so if guns sold by a particular dealer have a much shorter TTC, that dealer must be pushing guns out the back door.  But the fact is that since 40% of the sale dates of guns used to calculate TTC might not represent the last, legal sale, the TTC numbers published by the ATF are, to be polite, meaningless at best.

The ATF still sends trace requests by fax; the rest of the world, including all gun dealers, has discovered email as a more accurate and certainly efficient way to communicate back and forth.  If the ATF required dealers to keep their A&D book in Excel (which they actually recommend,) the dealer could scan his entire book immediately looking for a particular serial number and the ATF and local police would have a better chance of figuring out how and when a crime gun moved from legal to illegal hands.

You don’t need a new law, you don’t an Executive Order, you don’t need anything except some basic knowledge about the gun business in order to figure this out.

The ATF Issues A New Report On Gun Traces And Once Again They Get It Wrong.

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Here they go again – patting themselves on the back for the good work they do protecting America from the scourge of gun violence.  We do have a scourge of gun violence, but whether the ATF does anything in response to this problem other than releasing self-congratulatory and misleading reports remains to be seen.  The latest such missive, the ATF annual Firearms Trace Data, covers 2014 and Is advertised on the ATF website as containing “critically important information.” This sounds impressive, but let’s spend some time trying to understand exactly whether this ‘critically important’ information has any bearing at all on efforts by law enforcement agencies to deal with gun violence.

atf                In 2014 the ATF traced 246,000 guns, of which 175,000 were handguns, 65,000 were rifles and shotguns, 245 were “unknown types,” (I love that category), the remainder various pieces of crap.  Here’s how a trace works.  The cops get a gun and then send a trace request to the ATF which includes the manufacturer and serial number and the reason why the gun is being traced. The ATF then contacts the manufacturer and a paper trail from factory to distributor to dealer to first buyer is created by contacting each point in the trail in turn.

Of course once the gun leaves the shop with the initial buyer, that’s it.  And the ATF has absolutely no way of knowing whether the gun being traced was sold to someone else, or stolen, or ‘trafficked,’ – a meaningless word if I ever heard one – or whatever.  The ATF keeps a missing/stolen list of guns but the only people required to report such guns to this list are federally-licensed gun dealers.

In addition to describing the gun, the agency making the trace request must also specify the reason for the request.  Here’s where things get very interesting.  There are 64 different reasons why a trace is made, ranging from homicide and aggravated assault to such serious threats to community safety as abortion, bribery, election laws (I’m serious), forgery, gambling and the greatest scourge of all – found firearm.  This last category by itself covered more than 22,000 traces in 2014; i.e., nearly 10% of all traces.  Of the 246,000 total traces conducted by our intrepid ATF in the process of protecting us from gun violence, I’m being generous by saying that 25% involved guns picked up during or after the commission of serious crimes.  Yea, yea, I know.  All those other guns might have been used in serious crimes, and I might actually go on a diet later today.  In my state, Massachusetts, the cops asked the ATF to trace roughly 1,200 guns.  Know how many were associated with violent crimes like homicide and assault?  44 guns.  That’s five percent.

Along with telling us which gun shops sold all these crime guns, the ATF report also discloses another pile of data that is indispensable in the fight against gun crime, namely, what the ATF refers to as ‘Time-To-Crime;’ i.e., how long between when the traced gun was sold and when it was traced, the idea being that guns that are purchased as ‘straw sales’ will end up being used in crimes more quickly than guns sold to law-abiding purchasers.  In 2014, the ATF says that TTC was just under 11 years.  So if a bunch of guns came from a gun shop with a much briefer TTC, obviously this is a shop where something nefarious is going on.

Let me break the news to the ATF gently. The firearms inventory of most gun shops consists of 30%-40% used guns.  Since TTC is only calculated on the initial sale, the TTC numbers are off by a factor of 30% to 40%,.  Want to base public policy on data that might be 40% incorrect?  I don’t.

I have no issue with regulating a consumer product that is as lethal and dangerous as a gun.  But the regulators should at least know something about how the industry operates they are regulating.  The ATF trace report proves that they don’t.




Does Time To Crime Help Us Understand How Guns Get Into The ‘Wrong Hands?’ I Don’t Think So.

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Ever since the NICS system went fully operational in 1998, gun-control advocates have been pushing to expand background checks beyond the original countertop sale.  And while it’s arguable, to say the least, that 40% of all gun transfers take place outside of the NICS background check process, there’s no denying the fact that regulating the movement of firearms throughout the civilian marketplace means, by definition, that less guns would get into the ‘wrong hands.’  In the meantime, however, the lack of comprehensive background checks has also spawned a series of assumptions about how and why guns end up being used in crime, and these assumptions then lead to policy strategies whose effectiveness, as far as I can tell, would be questionable at best.

nics                The biggest assumption flowing from the patchwork NICS system is the notion that guns end up in the ‘wrong hands’ because of something called ‘straw sales;’ i.e., someone who can pass muster with NICS buys a gun for someone who can’t, or someone sells a firearm to someone else who is prohibited under law from owning a gun. Another corollary that runs along the same line is the notion that many crime guns come out of the inventories of a relatively few rogue dealers who consciously furnish these weapons to so-called ‘gun traffickers’ who then set up shop on a gang-infested street.  This leads to the third corollary, namely, that states with weak gun laws (read: the South) are the spores out of which all these straw sales and gun-trafficked weapons initially emerge, then to be carted off and resold in gun-tough states like New York and other parts of the Northeast.

Much of this evidence about how, why, when and where crime guns appear comes from those folks who are responsible for regulating gun commerce, a.k.a. the ATF.  The agency publishes an annual report on a state-by-state basis which shows how long it takes for a gun originally sold by a federally-licensed dealer to wind up in the street.  This process is known as Time To Crime (or TTC), and the average for all 50 states is somewhere around 11 years.  Consequently, when the ATF notices that a particular dealer has a TTC of two years or less, there’s a good chance that this shop is somehow involved in straw selling, gun trafficking, or both.  Let me break the news to you gently: If I had a nickel for every piece of research that has been published on the utility of TTC as a way to cut down on guns ending up in the wrong hands, I’d be sitting in Zelo’s in Monaco instead of the diner near my house which has a hot spot that I’m using while I write this piece.

I hate to break the news to the ATF and the gun-control advocates who rely on the ATF to help formulate their strategies for regulating guns, but the TTC data published by the ATF doesn’t explain anything about the movement of guns from legal to illegal hands.  The trace request received by the dealer is based on the date that the wholesaler shipped him the gun.  So the data which comprises a TTC dealer profile is based on the first time a particular gun was sold.  In most gun shops, upwards of 40% of the guns that are sold (and for which a NICS check is conducted) happen to be used guns.  I sold more than 12,000 guns in my shop and I can tell you that I often sold the same gun two or three times.  But if I received a trace request for that gun, my response would be based only on the earliest, initial sale.

If the average gun dealer sells 30-40 percent used guns, there’s a 30-40 percent chance that the ATF trace will not be a reliable indicator of when that particular gun started moving from legal to illegal hands. Want to base public policy and advocacy on those odds?  You go right ahead.


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