Firearms and Crime - Gunrunning Across State Lines
guns atf traced laws
Some states have enacted strict gun control laws to keep prohibited buyers, such as felons and children, from purchasing firearms. However, gunrunners make firearms easily available by legally buying guns in states with relaxed purchasing regulations and transporting them to states with tougher gun laws. Although by law only state residents can buy guns, gunrunners get around this by obtaining false identification or hiring someone (often called a "straw purchaser") to purchase multiple guns for them. Gunrunners can then sell those guns on the black market for four to five times their legal purchase price. These guns often end up being used in crimes.
The data from a report prepared by Senator Charles Schumer (NY) (The War between the States: How Gunrunners Smuggle Weapons across America, 1997) illustrates how big a problem gunrunning has become. For this report, Schumer analyzed raw data from the ATF regarding the 47,068 guns traced in 1996 to show that states with weak gun laws are far more often the source of guns used in crimes committed in states with strong laws than the reverse. Schumer believes that these data point to the need for more federal gun control legislation.
According to Schumer's analysis, Florida, Texas, South Carolina, and Georgia provided the most crime guns traced to other states in 1996, one-quarter of the total number (16,684) used in crimes outside of the state where they were bought. Three weak gun-law states (South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida) provided 702 guns traced to crimes committed in New York or New Jersey (states with strong gun laws). On the other hand, just eleven guns bought in New York or New Jersey were traced to crimes in South Carolina, Georgia, or Florida. More than three-quarters of the guns traced from crimes in South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, Kansas, Ohio, and Texas (states with weak gun laws) led back to dealers in the same state. Less than one-quarter of the guns used in crimes in New York and New Jersey (states with strong gun laws) were bought in those states. In fact, 90% of the guns found at crime scenes in New York City in 1996 and traced by the ATF came from other states.
The study also addresses the "export rate"—the number of guns per 100,000 state resident population traced from out-of-state crimes. For example, for every 100,000 Mississippi residents, twenty-nine guns sold in Mississippi were traced to crimes in other states. For every 100,000 residents in New York, 1.19 crime guns were traced to other states. Although New York's population is seven times larger than Mississippi's, in 1996 Mississippi had three times more out-of-state traces than New York (782 vs. 215).
Schumer rated each state on how strongly its laws reduced the gunrunners' easy access to firearms. According to this rating system, twenty-seven states were rated "very weak" because they have no significant restrictions beyond what is required under federal regulation such as the Brady Law. Four states were rated "weak," four "moderate," six "strong," and ten "very strong." None of the top ten states for gunrunning had either a "strong" or "very strong" rating.
|Interstate, intrastate, and international trafficking in ATF investigations, July 1996–December 1998|
|Destination of trafficked firearms||Number||Percent|
|SOURCE: "Table 11. Interstate, Intrastate, and International Trafficking in ATF Investigations," in Following the Gun: Enforcing the Federal Laws against Firearms Traffickers, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, June 2000, http://www.atf.gov/pub/fireexplo_pub/pdf/followingthegun_internet.pdf (accessed October 9, 2004)|
Gun rights advocate David B. Kopel objected to Schumer drawing sweeping conclusions from the ATF (which he refers to as BATF) data. In "Clueless: The Misuse of BATF Firearms Tracing Data" (Law Review of Michigan State University Detroit College of Law, vol. 171, no. 1, Spring 1999), Kopel contended,
Almost every major firearms control proposal (including "assault weapons" bans) … is touted on the basis of the "scientific" evidence provided by BATF traces…. Unfortunately, BATF tracing data was never intended to be used for policy guidance and is unsuitable for that purpose. To build the case for a particular gun law on the basis of BATF traces is to admit that there is no relevant data to support the law…. BATF has repeatedly stated that its trace data cannot be used to draw conclusions about patterns of criminal gun use or acquisition.
What does the ATF research show about crime gun trafficking across state lines? In the report Following the Gun: Enforcing Federal Laws against Firearms Traffickers (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, June 2000), the ATF documented the results of 1,530 gun trafficking investigations that it initiated from July 1996 through December 1998, involving more than 84,000 firearms that had been diverted from legal to illegal markets. Juveniles were involved in 14% (209) of the investigations, as possessors, thieves and robbers, and traffickers. The ATF found that:
- Corrupt Federal Firearms Licensees were the source of the highest number of illegally diverted firearms (more than 40,000).
- Nearly one-half of the investigations involved more than 20,000 firearms being trafficked by straw purchasers, either directly or indirectly.
- Gun shows were the source of more than 26,000 illegally diverted firearms.
Table 5.17 shows the destinations of the crime guns. (Note: Percentages add to more than 100% as many investigations involved guns with multiple destinations.) The ATF found that traced crime guns were generally obtained
|Known criminal uses of trafficked firearms, July 1996–December 1998|
|50.4% of the investigations (771 of 1,530) had at least one diverted firearm recovered in a crime.|
|Crime||Number of cases with at least one firearm recovered in a crime||Percent|
|Number of investigations include = 771|
|Note: Sum may exceed 100 percent since investigations may be included in more than one category.|
|SOURCE: "Table 9. Known Criminal Uses of Trafficked Firearms," in Following the Gun: Enforcing Federal Laws against Firearms Traffickers, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, June 2000, http://www.atf.gov/pub/fire-explo_pub/pdf/followingthegun_internet.pdf (accessed October 9,2004)|
|Criminal possession (not felon in possession)||390||50.6|
|Felon in possession||311||40.3|
in-state, but in 44.3% of investigations, interstate firearms trafficking was the source of traced crime guns. ATF also found that some places served as sources of crime guns for other areas. For example, Florida and Georgia were sources for the illegal markets in New York and Boston. ATF drew no broad conclusions, however, noting only that "regional variations in the trafficking channels in ATF investigations suggest that the illegal market in guns may operate differently in different areas of the country."
A New York Daily News story by Patrice O'Shaughnessy documented how New York and New Jersey students attending Southern and Midwestern colleges may have transported more than one thousand guns to "thugs" back home in the period from early 2001 to September 2002 ("Students Major in Running Guns," September 28, 2002). Guns that cost $100 in the South could be sold in New York for as much as $600. A number of crimes have been traced to those guns.
Table 5.18 shows the reported criminal uses of trafficked firearms. Out of 771 investigations, 40.3% of trafficked firearms were being held by felons; however, the majority (50.6%) were found in the possession of individuals who had not been convicted of a felony. 27.5% of these guns were used during drug offenses, 25.2% in assaults, 17.4% in homicides, and 16.5% in robberies. Also, 14% were found in the possession of juveniles.
Gun control advocates want to combat the problem of gunrunning with a law limiting gun buyers to one gun a month. They point to the success of such a law in Virginia. Illegal trafficking of handguns originally purchased in Virginia fell by two-thirds after that state passed a one-gunper-month law in 1993, according to "Effects of Limiting Handgun Purchases on Interstate Transfer of Firearms" by D. S. Weil and R.C. Knox (Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 275, No. 22, June 12, 1996). Gun rights advocates call one-gun-a-month laws a violation of their Second Amendment rights, another step down the road to total confiscation of their weapons, and a danger to the lives of law-abiding citizens forced to wait thirty days to purchase a handgun. According to John Michael Snyder, chief lobbyist for the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, any such proposal assumes "that it is the prerogative of the government, and not the right of the individual, law-abiding citizen, to determine when he or she needs or wants a particular arm for legitimate purpose."