A new analysis of the provenance of 53,000 crime guns by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office is a stark reminder of the limitations of state firearm restrictions — and of the public’s ability to obtain detailed information about the flow of guns within the United States.
The report, released Tuesday, reveals that three out of four firearms recovered by police in the Empire State were purchased somewhere else — most often, Virginia, the Carolinas, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Georgia. It shows, by zip code, where crime guns were recovered, and what kind of weapons they were.
But it does not answer the next most logical questions: what stores sold the guns, and whether particular dealers or individuals were linked to a disproportionate number of recovered firearms, which could indicate straw purchasers or “bad apple” gun dealers. Nor does the report note which guns were obtained through theft, believed to be another significant source of crime guns. These details could be used to guide investigations, prosecutions, and lawsuits against traffickers and dealers that provide an outsized share of crime guns.
The reason for this omission: The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the federal agency that traces guns, refuses to release the data, citing restrictions imposed a decade ago by Congress. In 2003, Republican Representative Todd Tiahrt of Kansas attached a set of riders to an appropriations bill that restrict the bureau from disclosing detailed trace information to anyone but the law enforcement agencies that actually request the traces.
The ATF told Schneiderman’s office that his staff could only get ahold of this data if they went to every single individual police department in the state, one by one, the report says.
At a press conference, Schneiderman said that the report shows how a patchwork of state gun laws isn’t sufficient to stem the flow of illegal guns, and called on Congress to pass universal background check legislation and on states to require individuals to get a permit to own a gun. He also acknowledged the limitations of the findings, owing to the Tiahrt amendments.
“The point of the report today is to prove that no matter how tough your laws are, if you do not have better laws in other states and better laws at the federal level, guns will continue to flow into the hands of criminals,” he said. “The federal government should amend the restrictions that make it hard for ATF to share data with entities other than law enforcement.”
On a handful of occasions, city governments have obtained detailed trace data from their police departments and publicized the results. In 2006, New York City identified 27 gun dealers in five different states that supplied a disproportionate number of crime guns, and took them to court. In 2014, Chicago released a report identifying the major sources of the city’s crime guns. It found that four local gun stores supplied 20 percent of the city’s crime guns alone. ATF trace data has formed the basis for several lawsuits against those Chicago-area gun shops, chief among them the notorious Chuck’s in the suburb of Riverdale — crowned the nation’s top source for crime guns.
Police departments can do “whatever they want” with the trace data they receive, says ATF spokesman Brian Garner. However, he adds that “if consulted, the agency would have advised against publicizing such trace data” as New York and Chicago have. That’s because, according to Garner, trace data is “intended for investigative use.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of gun sellers sued in the City of New York’s 2006 legal action. The earlier version also misstated the year Congress first passed the Tiahrt amendments. It was 2003, not 2005.
[Photo: Target on Trafficking]