On an average day in the U.S., guns are used to kill more than 80 people, injure almost 300 more, and commit approximately 3,000 crimes. Since John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, more Americans have been shot and killed on our own soil than in all the 20th-century wars combined.
What’s not well-known is that the vast majority of the approximately 12,000 annual gun murders and 66,000 non-fatal shootings are committed by people who have no legal right to a gun. How do criminals and other prohibited people get guns so easily? Through a highly efficient, organized, and profitable business of gun trafficking that moves guns from legal manufacture to dealers to criminals and young people who can’t buy guns legally.
Where do crime guns come from?
Virtually every gun starts out as a legally manufactured product, but the
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) points to three common ways guns move from legal distribution channels to the criminal market:
- Corrupt federally licensed gun dealers: Federally licensed gun dealers send more guns to the criminal market than any other single source. Nearly 60% of the guns used in crime are traced back to a small number—just 1.2%—of crooked gun dealers. Corrupt dealers frequently have high numbers of missing guns, in many cases because they’re selling guns “off the books” to private sellers and criminals. In 2005, the ATF examined 3,083 gun dealers and found 12,274 “missing” firearms.
- Straw purchasing: Straw purchasing is the most common way criminals get guns, accounting for almost 50% of trafficking investigations. A straw purchaser is someone with a clean record who buys guns on behalf of someone legally prohibited from possessing guns. Straw purchasers are often the friends, relatives, spouses or girlfriends of prohibited purchasers. The two Columbine High School shooters recruited friends to buy guns for them at Colorado gun shows. One of the buyers admitted she would not have bought the guns if she had been required to submit to a background check.
- Gun Shows and private gun sales: Gun shows have been called “Tupperware parties for criminals” because they attract large numbers of prohibited buyers. A loophole in federal law allows unlicensed or “private” sellers, many of whom work out of gun shows, to lawfully sell or transfer guns without conducting a criminal background check. Gun show dealers have been known to advertise to criminals with signs that read “no background checks required here.”
How Federal Gun Policy Contributes
to Illegal Trafficking
Congress has passed a series of laws in recent years that allow easy access to guns and restrict law enforcement’s ability to go after traffickers. Three policies in particular impede law enforcement’s ability to prosecute traffickers:
- Keeping crime gun trace information secret: Until 2002, the ATF released aggregate crime gun trace reports to local police departments, researchers, policymakers and public safety advocates. The reports revealed for the first time that 1.2% of federally licensed gun dealers supply 57% of the guns used in crime. But, bowing to pressure from the gun lobby, Congress voted to restrict police access to crime gun trace data and cut off public access altogether. These restrictions, known as the Tiahrt Amendments (named for the Kansas Congressman who sponsored the bill), have passed in every Department of Justice budget since 2003, despite the fact that prominent law enforcement associations oppose them as a serious threat to public safety.
- Handcuffing the ATF: The ATF, the sole government agency charged with enforcing federal gun laws, has operated without a permanent director since the Bush Administration, and operates with just 1,800 agents to monitor approximately 77,000 gun dealers. Given these constraints, it would take ATF 22 years to inspect all federally licensed gun dealers. Even if the ATF had the manpower to inspect most gun dealers, federal law limits the agency to a single unannounced inspection of a dealer in any 12-month period. Congress has made it increasingly difficult for the ATF to revoke licenses of crooked gun dealers.
- An absence of records: It is impossible for law enforcement to know the whereabouts of millions of firearms in circulation today because Federal law explicitly bars the ATF from establishing a database of retail firearms sales, and private gun sellers are not required to keep a paper trail of transactions. Prior to 2001, federal authorities maintained criminal background check records for up to six months. Under President Bush, Attorney General John Ashcroft reversed this policy and ordered the destruction of all criminal background check records within 24 hours. Even though the General Accounting Office found that destroying these records endangers public safety, the policy remains in effect.
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