Hiding the Numbers on Gun Madness

Between the Right’s false history of the Second Amendment and the NRA’s lobbying clout, the American scandal of uncontrolled firearms – and their use in mass slayings – continues unabated. The gun madness has even prevented law enforcement from quantifying the crisis, as Michael Winship reports.

By Michael Winship

Back in January, a month after the Newtown school slayings and just a few days before his second inauguration, Barack Obama announced he would “put everything I’ve got” into the fight against gun violence.

Part of his effort – and an end run around a Congress reluctant to make any move that might rile the National Rifle Association – was a group of 23 executive actions that, according to The New York Times, “he initiated on his own authority to bolster enforcement of existing laws, improve the nation’s database used for background checks and otherwise make it harder for criminals and people with mental illness to get guns.”

Among the actions, the President ordered the Justice Department’s beleaguered Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) to deliver an annual report on lost and stolen firearms in the United States. The first, covering the year 2012, was issued last week but promptly buried under a flurry of other news.

The report combines data from the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) and information obtained by the ATF from gun dealers, known as Federal Firearms Licensees (FFLs). It makes for fascinating, disturbing reading:

“In 2012, NCIC received reports reflecting 190,342 lost and stolen firearms nationwide. Of those 190,342 lost and stolen firearms reported, 16,667 (9% of the total reported) were the result of thefts/losses from FFLs. Of the 16,667 firearms reported as lost or stolen from a FFL, a total of 10,915 firearms were reported as lost. The remaining 5,762 were reported as stolen.”

Vying for the honor of #1:

“Texas was the top state for total firearms reported lost and stolen in 2012, with 18,874 firearms, which was 10% of all firearms reported lost or stolen in the country. Pennsylvania was the top state for firearms reported lost or stolen from a FFL in 2012 with 1,502 firearms, which was 9% of all firearms reported lost or stolen from a FFL in that year. Pistols were the most common type of firearm reported stolen from a FFL in 2012 with 3,322 reported, while rifles were the most common type of firearm reported lost from a FFL in 2012 with 4,068 reported.”

What’s even more disturbing is that the real numbers probably are much worse but difficult to quantify. Federal law requires that licensed gun dealers report any theft or loss to police and the ATF within 48 hours.

But when it comes to determining how many guns have been lost by or stolen from private citizens, the ATF states, “Reporting by law enforcement is voluntary, not mandatory, and thus the statistics in this report likely reveal only a fraction of the problem. Additionally, even where state and local law enforcement are consistently reporting statistics, many states do not require private citizens to report the loss or theft of a firearm to local law enforcement in the first place. As such, many lost and stolen firearms go entirely unreported.

“Moreover, even if a firearm is reported as lost or stolen, individuals often are unable to report the serial number to law enforcement because they are not required to record the serial number or maintain other records of the firearms they own for identification purposes. As a result, many lost and stolen firearms enter secondary and illicit markets with their status undocumented and undetectable.”

Got that? Much of this is because government regularly succumbs to the NRA paranoid conspiracy theories of a national gun registry that would be used to seize every citizen’s shootin’ irons. That’s why the ATF has been forced to trace guns, in the words of The Daily Beast’s Adam Winkler, “the way 17th-century monks copied texts: by hand.

“When a gun is found at a crime scene, ATF agents can’t just look up who owned the gun in a computer database. They first have to call the gun manufacturer and find out which wholesaler purchased it. Then they have to get the wholesaler on the line and find out which dealer purchased the gun from the wholesaler. Then they have to call the gun dealer and have the dealer’s files searched by hand to identify the first consumer to purchase the gun.

“If the gun dealer is no longer in business, ATF agents have to search through files — many of them handwritten — maintained in cardboard boxes, one by one. Because we don’t require background checks on all gun sales, all this work may be for naught. Even if the person who bought the gun is identified, he may just say he sold the gun to an unknown person. For this secondary transaction, which is perfectly legal, there won’t be any files to sift through.”

They go through this mind-numbing, time-wasting process more than 300,000 times a year.

Since 2006, the ATF has been further stymied by the lack of a confirmed director – also blocked by Congress – and restrictions on funding and personnel that limit its inspection of the approximately 70,000 licensed gun dealers in America. On average, it takes around seven years to get to all of them.

Plus, as Winkler reports, there’s “a law that prohibits the ATF from making more than one unannounced inspection per year to any gun dealer. Purportedly designed to stop the ATF from harassing law-abiding gun dealers, this rule ends up protecting the law-breaking gun dealers, who know that once the ATF has come by, the bureau’s agents won’t be back for the rest of the year. And at the behest of the gun-control opponents, Congress reduced the penalty for dealers who falsify records, which is now just a misdemeanor.”

Thank you, gun lobby. John Diedrich of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, who over the last few years has been producing remarkable coverage of the lax oversight of gun dealers and the ATF and its troubles (including some it has brought on itself), spoke with Andrew Molchan, director of the Professional Gun Retailers Association. Molchan told him that the number of missing guns is not a major concern, a drop in the bucket compared to the millions of guns that are sold every year.

“Well under one percent,” he said, “which is much better than a jewelry store.”

What a relief. On the other hand, when was the last time you heard about someone murdered in their home or on the street — or in a schoolroom — with a charm bracelet?

Michael Winship, senior writing fellow at the policy and analysis group Demos, is senior writer of the weekly public television series Moyers & Company. For more information or to comment, go to www.BillMoyers.com.

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13 comments on “Hiding the Numbers on Gun Madness

  1. The 2A on said:

    Your meme doesn’t reflect reality.

    Gun-related homicides have dropped 39%, while non-fatal gun crimes have dropped 69% over the past eleven years. At the same time, gun sales have skyrocketed:

    http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=4616

    http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2013/05/07/gun-homicide-rate-down-49-since-1993-peak-public-unaware/

  2. Texas Topcat on said:

    Yes the current system for tracking a gun is slow and limited. This is by design and not something that should be changed. The base idea is that if we have civil discourse and the government starts attempting to take guns, the local dealers have the ability to destroy the lists. This is very important. Trust in government is at a all time low, so this is exactly why we can not allow a gun registry to happen. The 2A “shall not be infringed” seems to be too complex a statement for the progressive movement to understand.
    We all want to assist in bring criminals to justice. But, why should a gun be treated any different than say a kitchen knife or hammer. There are more people killed by hammmers than AR-15′s. The other fact that seems to be overlooked by the anti-gun groups is that criminals do not generally obtain guns in a legal manner, so there will not be any tracking of illegal guns in any event.

    • The 2A “shall not be infringed” seems to be too complex a statement for the progressive movement to understand.

      And maybe too complex for the NRA stooges on the Supreme Court, too. Scalia, et. al. were willing to allow gun possession to be regulated. What part of “shall not be infringed” do you thing they don’t understand?

  3. Rich on said:

    Most guns used in gun crime were purchased over 10 yrs before they are used. Then most of the ones used in crime were stolen.

  4. John on said:

    More children died last year from circumcisions than died in Newton. Where is the outcry?

  5. Joseph P. Martino on said:

    For insurance purpoes, it’s still worth keeping a record of the serial numbers on your guns. But keep the records to yourself.

  6. American gun lust has gone far beyond mere gun madness. It’s become a mind-numbing drug turning humans into gun zombies. We should be considering it a pathology instead just the result of low-effort thinking.

  7. Dean Weingarten on said:

    It is hard to understand the anti-Second Amendment types fascination with firearm traces. Virtually no violent crimes are solved by firearms traces. Once a gun is stolen, the trace of the firearm means nothing, and most guns used in crimes are stolen.

    Then there is the ever present number of guns that are made outside the system, homemade guns, and now, the ever increasing possibility of 3D printed guns, all of which are completely untraceable.

    Tracing guns simply does not solve or prevent violent crimes. At the very best, it tells you who last owned the gun legally.

    All this focus on tracing guns simply does not make any sense as a means of reducing crime, especially now that the Supreme Court has ruled that you have a fundamental, Constitutional right to have an unsecured, loaded handgun in your home.

    This insures that there is a ready supply of stolen, untraceable guns for the criminal market, which only needs a very small percentage of guns to operate.

    The energy and effort put into tracing guns is all wasted. It would be much better placed in insuring that those violent criminals who are forbidden from having guns do not have them, or if they are found with them, the go to jail. That system has actually been shown to reduce homicides. Just look to David Kennedy’s efforts to confirm that fact.

  8. Will on said:

    Don’t address the real problem; a messed up grossly unequal dystopian kleptocracy that that needs, encourages and foments violence. A society that more and more abandons its poor sick and elderly to there own devices, while harvesting its youth for imperial wars. No don’t deal with any of that, just reduce the ability of those who go of script to do damage.

  9. Slicemaster19 on said:

    The attention paid to tracking guns continues to point out the fact that law enforcement’s priority is NOT protecting you or me from crime, it is protecting society and investigating crimes that have already occurred.

    If a TINY percentage of that effort were placed on getting existing known criminals off the street, this would go a long way towards stopping some of the 80+% of gun violence that we know are committed by people in the course of other criminal activity. What does it matter if we figure out 6 months from now that that drug dealer used a handgun stolen 10 years ago to commit a multiple shooting homicide. or one gang banger shot another with a pistol given to him by a family member.

    Get these people off the streets, and the gun violence will go down.

  10. Ralph Crown on said:

    Here’s one thing nobody seems to want to talk about. All these people stockpiling guns and ammo have already given up on government. They’re getting ready for the aftermath. They’ve been told that government is broken … by people who are still very busy breaking government. A democracy only works when people engage with it.

  11. elmerfudzie on said:

    The real underlying issue has little to do with guns and more to do with the sort of people who own them and in what cultural disposition their in. This is a nation built on bloodied soil. We are, in effect, ankle deep in American Indian blood, knee deep in our own (the Civil War) and waist deep in the blood of foreign peoples. We are more a collection of the sons of Cain as opposed to Abel’s lot. The powers that be know this and it causes them many a nightmare, as well as it should. FDR told the plutocrats, I’ve convinced the unions, moralists,socialists and communists of America, yes indeed they were well organized here, that I will do great things for them IF they don’t question the financial system we’re subject to. If you my brothers, FDR was very much part of the sliver spoon crowd, reject my New Deal proposals, the people will extract an alternate one and much less palatable to you. So, most of our eastern establishment blue bloods agreed with him and this spawned the civilian conservation corps (CCC), unemployment insurance, social security benefits, all in the midst of the worst economic downturn and bankruptcy in our nations history. Now, the elite plutocrats have pulled the rug out from under the middle and lower economic strata or classes, reneging on the New Deal, claiming there’s no money, refusing to be taxed by conniving, wherever possible, political arm-twisting methods and legalistic evasions. Instead of increasing these FDR social benefits in the midst of a global downturn, the plutocrats are ARMING, with guns and ammo, the Social Security Administration as well as revoking the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 through the aegis of Department of Homeland Security among others. There’s a false illusion circulating out there, that high tech gadgetry is strong enough to implement and preserve a new feudal and oligarchical order. Sad mistake gentlemen, sad, sad mistake.