Gun Laws, Legal Guns, and the Illegal Gun Trade

The facts: There are roughly 307 million people in this country and the U.S. is home to a huge number of guns, some 90 firearms for every 100 Americans.  Federal gun legislation is weak and Congress and the White House have misread past electoral results and have been scared away from any law that will result in meaningful changes.  This is has led to a patchwork system across the 50 states.  States, and some cities, have passed and enforce their own gun laws.

The result: States with weak guns laws essentially cancel-out the stronger laws of neighboring States.  So we can posit that this incoherent and relatively (in many states) unregulated gun policy allows the for the trafficking of guns and the flourishing of an illegal gun market.  In 2009, more than 238,000 guns were recovered at crimes scenes and traced by BATFE.  Legal guns lead to illegal “crime guns”.

Luckily we don’t have to guess at anything – Mayor Against Illegal Guns has combed through FBI and BATFE data for us.  In 2008 they released their first report.  In 2010, using feedback from lawmakers and law enforcement, they expanded their scope and released a second report.  It’s chilling.

Recently there has been a spate of police officers shot in the line of duty.  In early January an officer in Lakewood, New Jersey was shot and killed as he approached a pedestrian.  This past weekend officers were shot from Port Orchard, Washington to Lincoln City, Oregon to Florida and Indianapolis.  There was even a scene that could have been ripped from Robocop as a gunman walked into a police precinct in Detroit and began shooting.

Some in the news media are calling this a “War on Cops” and wonder at the reasons:  Are they motivated by a hatred of authority or dislike of Police?  Is the recession, desperation? It’s difficult to parse the mind of a killer so the reasons are likely to be myriad.  The one thing that we know links all of these attacks on officers of the law is that the perpetrators had guns.  It hasn’t been reported yet, but it’s likely that some suspects illegally procured their weapons while others had broken no law until they shot the officers.

Gun rights defenders will point out that the vast majority of gun owners are law-abiding citizens.  This is true.  It will also be pointed out that no matter how many laws are passed, people will still acquire guns.  This is also true, but far too simplistic.  As with many things, we tend to romanticize the illegal gun issue.  When we picture the illegal weapons trade we see criminal organizations receiving shipments of large wooden crates.  The crates are packed with straw, full of gleaming black hand guns and assault rifles, and opened with a crow bar.

Mayors Against Illegal Guns helpfully shows us that this is not the case.  The data in Trace the Guns also puts to bed the idea we’re better off treating firearms law as a states’ rights issue.  The report crystallizes the need for comprehensive Federal (emphasis mine) legislation to enhance the protections afforded by states with strong guns laws and fill in the holes for states with weak laws and loopholes.  It’s time to make sense of our gun laws.  We need to pass legislation aimed at standardizing practices for issuing permits, requirements for reporting lost or stolen weapons, regulating dealers (yes, this means closing the gun show loophole), and strengthening background checks.

Nearly all guns used in crimes (crime guns) and recovered by law enforcement were sold legally, the first time.  Crime guns that are not used by their original owner enter the illegal gun trade in any number of ways including theft and robbery from homes or gun stores, straw purchases (someone else purchases a gun for someone who can’t), dealers who engage in illegal sales, and sales at gun shows where background checks are not required.  Many crime guns cross state lines and come from states with lax guns laws.  This means that thousands of crime guns are moving throughout this country and very often states with weak gun protections are directly contravening the efforts of states with strong gun control.  In fact, the report found that “just 10 states supplied nearly half of the guns that crossed state lines before being recovered in crimes…” That’s almost 21,000 crime guns in 2009, alone.  Unsurprisingly, the report also found that those ten states also supply a greater percentage of guns that are likely to be trafficked.  The report concluded that “there is a strong association between a state’s gun laws and it’s propensity to export crime guns…”

As expected states that export a high number of crime guns import less.  This can only be due to the fact that there is no need to take the time to import illegal weapons into your state when it’s easy to get at home.  Weak guns laws means more gun crime and the reverse is true.

This report should be read by everyone – and debated.  There is one conclusion to be drawn from this report: A lack of cohesive federal legislation and the wild variation in state law leads to more guns in the hands of people who should never have them.  Trace the Guns looks at ten gun laws.  While we should enact some form of all of them, we’d be advised to seriously consider these four: Background checks for all handguns at gun shows, permits for all handgun purchases, mandatory reporting of lost or stolen firearms to local law enforcement, and a prohibition on purchases by violent miscreants (e.g. stalking, battery).

Gun control is a contentious issue and important.  We need to make sure we’re using data and not simple anecdotes.  Trace the Guns, the work of the Brady Campaign, and others are attempting to quantify what lax and incoherent guns laws are doing to our communities.  Mayor Bloomberg spoke eloquently about guns this week.  He brought 34 friends with him to represent the 34 people who are killed with guns each day.  34 a day and more than 400,000 (some say more than 1 million) since 1968.  Mayor Bloomberg is addressing the issue because Congress and the White House won’t.  Despite Tuscon and the 11 police officers shot since the New Year, the President couldn’t even name check gun control in the State of the Union.  We need more Mayor Bloombergs and Martin Luther King IIIs – leaders who will step up and lead a discussion.

But what did the NRA have to say about this?  By calling the Mayor names and accusing him of wagging the dog.  Chuck Cunningham, the NRA Political Director, also trotted out the old, they’re coming for you – “He’s not after illegal guns, he’s coming for your guns”.  Which is not true.  The Mayor and his allies have never stated a desire to seize legally purchased guns from their owners.  Never.  And no amount of NRA mudslinging can make that true.

Those of us who favor strong gun control are willing to have an adult conversation.  It doesn’t look like the other side is.

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