Rounds

News and notes on guns in America

How the Fix NICS Act Could Strengthen the Gun Background Check System

After a weekend of protests and vigils following the massacre at a Florida high school that left 17 dead, President Donald Trump signaled support on Monday for bipartisan legislation aimed at improving records reporting to the federal gun background check system.

Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said in a statement that the president had spoken to Senator John Cornyn of Texas, a Republican, who introduced legislation intended to shore up the gun background check system last fall. “While discussions are ongoing and revisions are being considered,” Sanders said, “the president is supportive of efforts to improve the federal background check system.”

If you are looking for information on how federal background checks work, check out our explainer. For more on how the so-called Fix NICS Act might keep guns out of the hands of convicted criminals, keep reading.

What is NICS, anyway?

Launched in 1998, the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System is used by federally licensed firearms dealers to check whether a person who is trying to buy a gun is legally permitted to do so.  

When a licensed dealer calls NICS, checkers search three different databases for criminal records that might disqualify a buyer. One database, called the NICS Indices, returns an answer within minutes, and contains records that automatically disqualify a person from gun ownership.

The other two databases, the Interstate Identification Index or III and National Crime Information Center, or NCIC, contain additional criminal records. The records in those databases are used for a variety of purposes in addition to gun background checks, from traffic stops to probation reports.

Private sellers are not mandated to conduct background checks on potential buyers under federal law, but some states have added that requirement.

Why does NICS need to be fixed?

The gun background check system is only as strong as the records it contains. States voluntarily supply records to the databases that make up the NICS system, and they do a spotty job of it. Some records never make it into the databases, and others are incomplete or unclear.

The gunman who slaughtered 26 people in a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, last  November purchased weapons legally, but should never have been allowed to do so. The Air Force later revealed that it had failed to submit criminal records to NICS that could have blocked the shooter, an Air Force veteran, from buying a gun.

The FBI has said it doesn’t know how many records go unsubmitted, but the National Rifle Association has cited a 2013 report by the nonprofit National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics, which estimated that about 7 million records are missing. That report determined that “at least 25% of felony convictions . . . are not available” to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System maintained by the FBI.

In other cases, people are allowed to leave a gun shop with a firearm, only for a checker to later discover that they are disqualified. These are “default proceed” sales. The gunman who killed nine people at baptist church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, obtained his weapons through such a purchase.

What would the Fix NICS Act do, specifically?

The bill, sponsored by Cornyn and Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, a Democrat, would require federal agencies to improve their reporting standards and encourage states to follow suit.

Federal agencies would be required to submit detailed action plans to the attorney general’s office, showing how they intend to upload all records on people prohibited from buying guns into the NICS database. The plans would include specific quantitative goals and timelines for compliance.

The attorney general would report the number or records, broken down by category, that each federal agency had reported.

Political appointees at agencies that did not comply would not be given annual bonuses.

States and federal agencies would be called out publicly if they failed to meet the goals they had set. They would also be given technical support as they work to build better reporting systems.

The legislation would also make $125 million available to states each year from 2018 to 2022 to improve verification of criminal records and report them to the FBI. Priority would be given to states that show they have a detailed plan for implementing better practices for record reporting.

Experts agree that the Fix NICS Act would add welcome resources and accountability to a complex and cloudy gun background check system.

Would the bill “fix” the background check system for good?

Even if Fix NICS were to become law, problems with the background check system are likely to remain.

For starters, Congress can’t force states to report more records, so there is no guarantee that they will improve their practices. The bill instead encourages compliance with direct financial incentives, as well as access to other federal assistance programs.

What’s more, the NICS background check system is complex and opaque, making it difficult for watchdogs to judge the completeness of each state’s reporting system. Of the three FBI databases that states enter their records into, the FBI only publishes data for one, the NICS Indices.

How might a strengthened background check system prevent crime?

Preventing more people with criminal records from buying guns will almost certainly be a benefit to public safety. Whether or not the specific changes being proposed will prevent future mass shootings is murkier.

It is unlikely that improvements to the FBI’s gun background check system would have prevented the Parkland shooter from buying the semiautomatic AR-15 rifle he used in the mass killing. According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the gunman was not prohibited from gun ownership and purchased the gun legally.

An airtight background check system would have prevented the shooters Sutherland Springs and Charleston from obtaining the weapons they used in the attacks. But prohibited buyers can still often find ways around the system by buying guns in private sales or on the black market.

What are the odds that background check reform will actually happen?

With widening calls for the president and Congress to act to stop mass shootings, the Fix NICS legislation, which was backed by the NRA, seems to have the best chance of any existing bill of being signed into law.

In a Tweet Monday, Murphy said Trump’s support is a sign that the politics of gun violence are shifting. But, he added, “No one should pretend this bill alone is an adequate response to this epidemic.”

The Very Brave Students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High is a big school, enrolling some 3,000 students. It has been four days since it was struck by one of the worst mass shootings in modern American history.

Stoneman Douglas is therefore now part of something much larger — the struggle to reduce gun violence in America. It did not choose that fate. But it is also clear that its students are unwilling to cede what happens next. They are determined to write their own story.

They want you to know who was taken from their community. So let us start there.

A freshman thrilled to have made varsity soccer. A swimmer with Olympic dreams. Two 14-year-olds who spent their off-hours helping special needs kids.

They were among the 14 children shot dead in Parkland, Florida, this Wednesday afternoon. Fifteen others suffered gunshot wounds; several have undergone multiple surgeries. The young victims were just starting to imagine what they’d become. Their years of birth — 1999, 2001, 2003 — marked lives far too brief.

The faculty members who died alongside them are being remembered as their confidantes and mentors. And now as heroes, to those whose lives they saved.

The students of Stoneman Douglas want you to remember the friends, classmates and teachers they lost. This is who they were.

WHAT THEY SAW, AND HEARD

It seemed like America might be growing numb to mass shootings. Then Parkland students pulled out their phones.

Gun rampages have become frequent enough to develop a familiar visual language: The aerial footage of survivors filing away from danger, hands up or on the next person’s shoulders. Closeups of reunited families and sobbing mourners. Panoramas of nighttime vigils.

For all their power, those scenes had recently lost their ability to hold the nation’s attention. But Parkland may be different, The Trace’s James Burnett and Elizabeth Van Brocklin wrote in an essay for the Washington Post, because of the record that Stoneman Douglas students created while their school was under siege.

Unmediated and unsanitized by journalism’s conventions, the videos they recorded steal your breath, and then your sleep. They are difficult to watch, but also essential to confront. They make real what reporting after the fact can’t quite: The horror of experiencing gun violence firsthand.

THE STAND THEY ARE TAKING

Eloquent and poised, these kids will not accept more inaction. They are unafraid to take on their critics.

“There’s this section of society that will just shrug this off, and send their thoughts and prayers, but will march for hours if they have to bake a rainbow wedding cake. … Our community just took 17 bullets to the heart. And it feels like the only people who don’t care are the people making the laws.”

—Junior Cameron Kasky, to CNN.

“Please! We are children. You guys are, like, the adults. Take action, work together, come over your politics, and get something done.”

—Senior David Hogg, to CNN.

“I was hiding in a closet for 2 hours. It was about guns. You weren’t there, you don’t know how it felt. Guns give these disgusting people the ability to kill other human beings. This IS about guns and this is about all the people who had their life abruptly ended because of guns.”

—Senior Carly Novell, rebutting right-wing pundit Tomi Lahren on Twitter.

“For those…telling me to shut up, telling me I don’t know what I’m talking about, & many other things. Know that I stand my ground, as a Douglas student. A student who’s lost classmates, friends, & coaches. For the rest of my life, I will demand change. #neverforget”

—Stoneman Douglas student K.C. Parrow, on Twitter.

On Twitter, Teachers Trade DIY Tips on Protecting Their Students Against Mass Shooters

Ian Pearce is a high school teacher in Arlington, Texas. Whenever a school shooting makes national headlines, he and his wife have a difficult conversation: If a gunman ever breaches one of Pearce’s classrooms, his wife has given him permission to lay down his life for his students.

“I see my students more than I see my wife,” Pearce said during a phone interview. “It’s my job to instruct and teach these students, but it is also my job to keep them safe, and I take that really seriously.”

As details of Wednesday’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, surfaced, Pearce began to re-evaluate how he could best protect his students. The faculty, staff, and students at that school had followed lockdown protocols for an active-shooter situation, and still 17 people died.

When Pearce, who teaches advanced placement psychology and coaches the junior varsity wrestling team at Sam Houston High School, started his career five years ago, he thought about lesson plans and making sure his students were passing their tests. Now, the idea that his students could die keeps him up at night.

“I’m not going to bring a weapon to school, so what kinds of things do I have in my classroom that I can use to defend myself?” Pearce said. “If there is an intruder in my school, what am I going to do to make sure that I go home safely, and my students go home safely?”

In the spirit of teachers sharing lesson plans, Pearce took to Twitter to call for defense tips and vent his frustration. Within hours, Pearce found that teachers from across the country were grappling with the same questions that he was.

So far, he’s received more than 40 comments from teachers and school officials.

Others tweeted about repurposing classroom materials for self-defense.

“When it comes to school shootings,” said Pearce, “you have to be prepared to die for your students, and it is a very sobering thought.”

Some teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas did just that. Among the dead were Aaron Feis and Scott Beigel. Feis was an assistant football coach who died of a gunshot sustained while shielding students from rifle fire. Beigel was shot and killed hiding students in his geography classroom.

“When he opened the door, he had to re-lock it so we can stay safe, but he didn’t get the chance to,” Kelsey Friend, one of the high-schoolers protected by Beigel, told CNN. “I am alive today because of him.”

Besides this week’s Valentine’s Day massacre, there have been at least 13 other incidents in which a gun was fired on the grounds of an American elementary or secondary school this year. Of these, there have been five deaths and another 19 injuries, according to the Gun Violence Archive.

“I’m saddened that this is what is has come to,” Pearce said, “that the thing that keeps your children safe from an intruder is a teacher with a chair leg or a bottle of wasp spray, and they may have a semi-automatic rifle.”

Tell Us: How Do You Deal With News of Mass Shootings and Gun Violence?

In just the past four months, the United States has seen three of the deadliest mass shootings in its modern history. The latest this week at a high school in Florida killed at least 17 people and left more than a dozen injured. Between the rampage attacks that grab national headlines, local media frequently brings reports of gun homicides that leave communities reeling. 

As part of our ongoing coverage of the country’s gun violence crisis, we’re interested in how Americans process the kinds of stories that fill our reporting. 

You may also submit your responses to [email protected]. A reporter or editor from The Trace may follow up with you.

No, the Gun Background Check System Doesn’t Wrongly Reject “Millions” of Buyers

The pro-gun, oftdebunked economist John Lott on Monday scored a coveted New York Times op-ed. He used the piece as the platform for a fringe contention that, if true, would qualify as front page news for the gun policy world.

The federal background check system, Lott wrote, has improperly blocked gun sales to “millions of law-abiding citizens,” simply because they have names and birthdates that are the same as or similar to someone disqualified from possessing firearms.

A few of us at The Trace have been parsing Lott’s claim. Bear with us as you read on; this inquiry took us fairly deep into the weeds of federal gun restrictions, and takes some space to explain.

But to cut to the upshot: Lott is peddling another myth.  

He seems to draw his bogus conclusion not on rigorous statistical analysis, but a conspiratorial inference. Looking at a report covering background checks from 2006 to 2010, Lott takes the number of denials (more than 375,000) and subtracts the number of federal prosecutions for lying on the form (480).

A ha! The government, Lott concludes, dropped many of the charges because it discovered that the applicants should never have been rejected in the first place.

Except…the same government report Lott cites (the link to which is now down) lists fewer than .1 percent of denied gun purchases as rejected for prosecution because the buyer was incorrectly barred.

Many more weren’t prosecuted because they weren’t considered a priority by the relevant U.S. Attorney’s office, or because the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosive, the federal agency tasked with investigating denied purchasers, decided prosecutors wouldn’t even be interested.

Whether or not federal prosecutors are sufficiently serious about gun background check fraud is a separate subject. Lott’s topic is the purported injustice of the system’s “false positives.” In building his case, he elides other data showing that very few Americans eligible to buy guns are erroneously blocked from doing so.

  • For a 2016 audit, the Department of Justice’s Inspector General went back through 447 denied gun transactions. It found a single mistaken denial, for an accuracy rate of 99.8 percent.
  • Shoppers rejected by a gun background check can file an appeal. From 2012 to 2016, the last five years for which data is available, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reversed 18,466 denials. For context, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System processed more than 44 million transactions during the same period.

So yes, there are rare gun buyers who have their purchases rejected — or more likely, delayed — when there names match that of a prohibited person. But that number is “infinitesimal compared to the total number of background checks the go on,” says Anthony Coulson, a former Drug Enforcement Agency agent turned gun background check guru.

“To say the rate of false positives is incredibly high is just false,” he adds. “It’s a lie.”

Placeholder Image

[AP/Charles Krupa]

Here’s Why American Teenagers Can Buy AR-15s

Nikolas Cruz was too young to buy a pistol at a gun shop. But no law prevented the teenager from purchasing the assault-style rifle he allegedly used to kill at least 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida, on Wednesday.

Authorities said Cruz, 19, passed a background check and bought the rifle from a licensed dealer in February 2017.

“No laws were violated in the procurement of this weapon,” Peter J. Forcelli, the special agent in charge for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Miami, told The New York Times.

Florida isn’t unique. In most states, people can legally buy assault-style weapons before they can drink a beer. Federal law stipulates that gun stores and other licensed dealers may not sell a handgun to anyone under the age of 21, but they can sell long guns — i.e., rifles and shotguns — to anyone who is at least 18, according to Giffords Law Center to Prevent Violence.

Only two states — Hawaii and Illinois — have raised the minimum age to purchase a long gun to 21.

And when it comes to owning a gun, age limits are even looser. There is no federal minimum age requirement for long guns. As The Washington Post pointed out, if a father wants to buy his young son a rifle for his birthday, it is perfectly legal for him to do so in much of the country.

Twenty-three states have set minimum age requirements for the ownership of long guns, ranging from 14 in Minnesota to 21 in Illinois and Hawaii. In the District of Columbia, a person has to be 21 to own a long gun unless they have parental consent, in which case they only have to be 18. In Florida, where Wednesday’s mass shooting took place, the minimum age requirement for owning a long gun is 18.

Handguns are subject to much stricter requirements. A 1995 Bureau of Justice Statistics report found that handguns were involved in more than 85 percent of gun-related crime. Handguns were involved in 57 percent of all homicides (including non-gun-related killings), while rifles were connected to just 3 percent.

But assault-style rifles have been used in many of the high-profile mass shootings over the last six years. In 2012, Adam Lanza used an rifle made by Bushmaster to kill 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Omar Mateen was armed with a Sig Sauer rifle when he massacred 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Florida two years ago. Stephen Paddock reportedly had multiple assault-style rifles when he sprayed bullets into a crowd of Las Vegas concertgoers in October, killing 58 and wounding hundreds.

Last year, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals declared assault-style rifles weapons of war. The ruling meant that Americans did not have an unfettered right to buy such rifles under the Second Amendment and that states were free to regulate them. Seven states and the District of Columbia have banned such rifles. Florida is not one of them.

Placeholder Image

[AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee]

Florida High School Shooting: At Least 17 Dead, Many Others Injured in Parkland

A man wearing a gas mask and armed with an AR-15 rifle entered his former Florida high school on Valentine’s Day, unleashing a hail of bullets that left at least 17 people dead and more than a dozen wounded. The victims, according to authorities, included students and staff.

The shooting began around 2:30 p.m. at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, a small city about 15 miles southwest of Boca Raton. Police said the gunman pulled a fire alarm before starting his rampage, prompting the some of the school’s nearly 3,000 students and staff to stream into hallways and stairwells. Some students sought cover inside the school once the shooting began. Videos posted on social media show children hiding in closets an under desks, surrounded by the blasts of gunfire and screams. Others show bodies strewn on classroom floors.

“It’s catastrophic,” said Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, during a news conference hours after the shooting. “There really are no words.”

The shooter, a former student who had been expelled, was taken into custody without incident.

Here’s what we know, and don’t know, about what happened:

The shooter was a former student, who had been expelled

Police identified the shooter as Nikolas Cruz, 19. The New York Times reports that Cruz had was a former student of Marjory Stoneman who had been expelled.

Cruz’s former teachers and classmates described him as a troubled teen with disciplinary issues and an obsession with weapons.

Jim Gard, a math teacher at the high school, told the Miami Herald that the administration had warned teachers about Cruz.

“We were told last year that he wasn’t allowed on campus with a backpack on him,” Gard told reporters. “There were problems with him last year threatening students, and I guess he was asked to leave campus.”

Broward County Mayor Beam Furr told CNN that Cruz had received treatment at a local mental health clinic. Furr said Cruz had not been to the clinic for more than a year.

According to the Washington Post, Cruz was adopted. His father, Roger Cruz, died of a heart attack several years ago. His mother, Lydia, died last November of pneumonia.  

After his mother’s death, Cruz moved in with a friend’s family, said Jim Lewis, a lawyer representing the family.

Lewis said the family believed Cruz was depressed, but did not prove a threat.

“The family brought him into their home,” Lewis told The Post. “They didn’t see anything that would suggest any violence. He was depressed, maybe a little quirky. But they never saw anything violent.

According to a report from Buzzfeed News, a YouTuber reported a comment left on one of his videos by a user named Nikolas Cruz that stated “”I’m going to be a professional school shooter.”

In a press conference, Rob Lasky of the FBI said that in 2017, the agency was alerted to the comment. The FBI conducted “database reviews and checks” but were unable to identify the person who made the statement, he said.

Cruz confessed to the shooting, reports the AP. During police interrogation, he also told law enforcement officials that he left behind his AR-15 and a vest he was wearing so he could blend in with the evacuating crowd.

Students described moments of confusion and terror

Students thought it was weird when they heard second fire alarm of the day — they’d already had a drill that morning. They quickly realized that this time, something was seriously wrong. They then unknowingly split into two groups — those who got out, and those who stayed. The students let out of the building jumped fences and ran with their arms above their heads. The ones on lockdown barricaded themselves in classrooms and closets.

Students used their phones to document the fear and chaos. One described being “f-cking scared.”

Another girl, down on the floor, wrote that she was shaking, capturing a picture of her Valentine’s Day-themed socks.

For a few hours, students became reporters. Senior David Hogg, a TV production student, used his video camera to interview his classmates while hiding in a small classroom, according to the Sun Sentinel.

After being held inside for around two hours, the students on lockdown began to be dismissed. The girl with hearts on her socks let out a whimper of relief. In another classroom, a SWAT team entered to find dozens of students on the floor, their arms in the air. One student’s hands shook violently in fear.

Florida has lenient gun ownership laws

Florida has a Child Access Prevention Law, which requires gun owners to store loaded weapons securely if they know that a minor might access them. Violation of the statute can result in a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on what the child does with the gun.

One study estimated Florida’s adult gun ownership rate at 32.5 percent in 2013 – slightly higher than the national average. The state had a firearm death rate of 13.12 per 100,000 people in 2016, placing it 24th in the country.

The state does not require background checks for private sales, nor does it require firearm owners or purchasers to be licensed.

Parkland is one of the state’s safest cities

Last year, Parkland was ranked the safest city in Florida in a report produced by the National Council for Home Safety and Security, a home security trade association. The ranking, which relied on FBI data, put Parkland’s violent crime rate at 0.24 per 1,000 residents – less than a tenth of the national average. The city of 29,242 people saw only seven violent crimes in 2016.

There have already been more than a dozen school shootings in 2018

So far this year, there have been 13 instances in which a gun was discharged on the grounds of an American elementary or secondary schools, resulting in five deaths and 19 injuries, according to Gun Violence Archive. That toll does not include the incident in Parkland.

Please follow us on Twitter for the most up-to-date information. And here’s a list of Florida sources we’re following for news and updates.

Placeholder Image

From left, David Sherrard; Micah Flick; Anthony Morelli; Chase Maddox; and Eric Joering.

Five U.S. Law Enforcement Officers Were Shot and Killed in the Line of Duty Last Week

On February 5, Micah Flick, a deputy with the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, was trying to apprehend a car thief in Colorado Springs when the suspect opened fire, killing him. The gunman wounded two other deputies and a bystander before being killed by police.

Flick, 34, is survived by a wife and 7-year-old twins and had been with the department for 11 years. His wife recounted at his funeral that he shielded his fellow officers from gunfire.

“Micah saved my life, and I will forever be grateful,” said Deputy Scott Stone, who was also shot and remains hospitalized.

Flick’s death was the start of a particularly lethal week for American law enforcement officers: At least five officers were killed by gunfire in the line of duty from February 5 to February 10.

On February 7, Officer David Sherrard, a 13-year veteran of the Richardson Police Department in Texas, was responding to a shooting at an apartment complex when he was shot in the neck. Sherrard, 37, who was married with two daughters, died at a hospital. The alleged assailant was charged with capital murder.

On February 9, Chase Maddox, 26, a police officer with the Locust Grove Police Department in Georgia, was serving a warrant to a man who failed to appear in court for a traffic violation when the man opened fire, killing Maddox and wounding two deputies. Maddox left behind a pregnant wife and a child. He had been with the department for five years. The man who allegedly shot him was killed by police.

The next day, Officers Anthony Morelli and Eric Joering of the Westerville Division of Police in Ohio were killed while responding to a 911 hangup call at an apartment when the resident shot them both. Morelli was 54; Joering, a 17-year veteran of the force, was 39. The suspected gunman was charged with capital murder.

According to the Officer Down Memorial Page, a nonprofit site that tracks line-of-duty deaths, a total of 10 officers have been fatally shot so far this year. Last year, 42 law enforcement officers were fatally shot in the line of duty, the site reports.

More Than Three Quarters of Domestic Violence Incidents Involved Dating Partners, Study Finds

A new study from the University of Pennsylvania finds that more than three quarters of domestic violence incidents involved dating partners, rather than spouses, a statistic that has potentially significant implications for protecting domestic abuse victims from gun violence.

Penn researchers analyzed more than 31,000 police reports of intimate partner violence in Philadelphia from 2013 and found that 82 percent of them involved current or former dating partners, while less than 19 percent involved current or former spouses. The full study by Penn professor Susan Sorenson and her team is published in this month’s Preventive Medicine.

Sorenson stresses one caveat: Her data is specific to Philadelphia, which has a particularly high rate of never-married adults (51.5 percent). But she notes that the average age of people getting married for the first time has risen in recent decades, increasing the general population’s proportion of unmarried adults.

The Lautenberg Amendment, a 1996 federal law that bans anyone convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence from gun possession, applies only to spouses, couples who have a child together, couples who are living together or have lived together in the past, or parents and guardians. It does not apply to dating partners. This gap is known as the boyfriend loophole.”

“The policy is from nearly a generation ago by now,” Sorenson said. “It might be time to revisit.”  

Eleven states and Washington, D.C., have expanded domestic violence gun bans to include dating partners. Similar state-level proposals have been vigorously resisted by the National Rifle Association.

A version of this story first appeared in our newsletter. Sign up here.

Placeholder Image

Tennessee News Station Uses The Trace’s Data to Link More Than 100 Stolen Guns to Crimes

A television news station in Johnson City, Tennessee, used data collected by The Trace and NBC to link 105 guns stolen in the northeastern part of the state to crimes committed across the United States, including kidnapping and murder.

One of the weapons tracked by the reporting team was reported stolen in 2013 by Bobby Lady, following a break-in at his home. A convicted felon used the gun six months later to shoot and kill a local college student. Lady told the station he was devastated to learn the fate of his missing firearm. “I cried and cried when I found out what happened to that young man,” he said.

The reporting by the Tennessee news outlet shows how reporters can use the trove of data on stolen and recovered guns amassed by The Trace and NBC to examine the nexus between gun theft and violent crime, and deliver high-impact stories to their audiences. After publishing a yearlong investigation on gun theft in November, The Trace and its reporting partners made the data available for free online, and have since provided technical assistance and advice to other journalists and researchers interested in the issue.

Guns pilfered in Northeast Tennessee surfaced as far away as California, where, the station found, a loaded stolen handgun was discovered in a front yard two blocks away from an elementary school.

One gun, a Smith & Wesson pistol, was stolen from an off-duty Virginia sheriff deputy’s glove compartment while she was visiting Tennessee. WJHL searched for the weapon’s serial number in the database and got a hit in Camden, New Jersey, hundreds of miles away.

Records from the Camden County Police Department showed that the pistol was recovered in 2016 after police responded to reports of shots fired, came upon two people drinking and found that one of them had the gun in his possession.

WJHL notified the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Virginia, where the deputy was employed. Captain Scott Snapp told the station that the department had not been informed that the weapon was recovered. “It would’ve been nice if we had known,” he said. The Trace’s investigation found that police departments frequently fail to share information about stolen and recovered weapons.

If you’re a reporter interested in the issue of stolen guns, you can contact me at [email protected].

Placeholder Image

A gun shop employee demonstrates a bump stock on a semiautomatic rifle. [AP Photo/Allen Breed]

The ATF Received 36,000 Comments on Bump Stocks. They’re Overwhelmingly Anti-Regulation.

In the week following the Las Vegas massacre on October 1, polls showed that nearly 75 percent of registered voters in gun-owning households supported a ban on bump stocks. Yet despite the public sentiment, an analysis by The Trace of comments submitted in response to a government proposal to regulate bump stocks shows that 85 percent of commenters opposed the measure.

In 2010, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives ruled that bump stocks are accessories not subject to federal regulation. More than a dozen rifles modified with the devices, which enable semiautomatic weapons to simulate automatic fire, were recovered from the hotel room of the gunman, Stephen Paddock.

After public outcry following the mass shooting, the ATF announced in December that it would again explore the possibility of regulating bump stocks by reclassifying them as machine guns. As an early step in the evaluation process, the agency initiated a public comment period to solicit input from manufacturers, retailers, and consumers — parties that would be impacted should the rules on bump stocks change. The window for public comments closed on January 25, and all told, the agency received more than 36,000 submissions, which are still being reviewed and posted online.

The Trace downloaded the text of more than 32,000 of the comments and used computer scripts to parse and analyze them. The comments overwhelmingly opposed regulating bump stocks. Only 13 percent were in support of the proposal to regulate the devices. (Another 2 percent didn’t express a clear stance.)

The results of our analysis showcase a paradox of the gun debate. While widespread public support exists for many gun regulations and policies — from bump stocks to background checks — pro-gun advocates are significantly more active than their counterparts when it comes to engaging politicians and government agencies.

Twenty percent of the comments mirrored a form letter promoted by the Gun Owners of America, which opposes the regulation. Of those supporting ATF regulation, the majority of form letter submissions — a little over 6 percent of the total — came from a letter generated by the Giffords Law Center. An additional 2 percent of comments consisted of form letters promoted by other organizations.

The majority of comments — 72 percent, or about 23,000 — were unique responses written by individuals. To estimate the stances of these opinions, The Trace pulled a random sample of 1,000 submissions and labeled them as being for or against the regulation of bump stocks. Of the comments included in the sample, roughly 89 percent were written in opposition to the regulation, and 9 percent in support. The composition of the sample enabled us to extrapolate the makeup of all 23,000 pro- and anti-regulation unique comments: 64 percent against, and 6 percent in favor.

An additional round of analysis of our sample group revealed certain characteristics among unique commenters. For example, commenters who opposed the regulation were more verbose, writing messages that were on average 45 percent longer than those supporting the regulation of bump stocks.

Anti-regulation commenters were also more likely to mention the technical aspects of a gun, the ATF’s rule-making process, and the Constitution, while those favoring the regulation were much more likely to mention the Las Vegas massacre, as well as other mass shootings like the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, which left 20 children and six educators dead.

In its request for comments, the ATF had posed a set of questions to manufacturers, retailers, and consumers in order to better understand the “scope and nature of the market for bump stock type devices,” but did not include an open call for opinions about the proposed regulation. Among the comments analyzed, we identified only five whose authors identified themselves as retailers, and one from a manufacturer.

The public comments collected by the ATF are intended to inform the agency’s decision of whether to reclassify bump stocks and subject them to regulation. If the agency chooses to propose a new rule, it would be sent to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs for approval, before being published in the Federal Register.

Watch: Stolen Guns Drive Violent Crime in Connecticut

Earl Wilson’s 10-year-old daughter Ariana was relaxing on the sofa in their Hartford, Connecticut, home when a gunman sent a barrage of bullets through the living room window. One of the rounds struck Ariana in the head, severely injuring her. The shooting was carried out with a handgun reported stolen months earlier from a unlocked car in the suburban town of Glastonbury.

The Trace partnered with more than a dozen NBC TV stations as part of our yearlong investigation into the link between stolen guns and violent crime. With NBC Connecticut, we identified more than 1,000 stolen weapons in the state, including many that were later used in crimes. They include a handgun plucked from a car in a Cheshire driveway and later used to rob a mall, and a pistol left in the bed of a pickup truck that, four years later, was connected to a homicide.

You can watch the full segment here:

View full screen