News and notes on guns in America

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[Godofredo A. Vasquez/Houston Chronicle]

ATF’s Push to Solve More Gun Crimes Is Stymied by Local Police, Report Finds

A push by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to improve gun crime investigations has been hindered by local police departments that fail to trace guns or to promptly enter shell casings into a national ballistics database, a Department of Justice Inspector General report found.

The rundown, which was released February 14, was a report card of sorts on ATF’s “Frontline Initiative,” a 2013 agency overhaul that followed several high-profile agency scandals, including the “Fast and Furious” operation, in which agents knowingly allowed straw buyers to traffic guns.

The Frontline Initiative was supposed to improve oversight of field offices by ATF officials, promote better intelligence gathering, and better measure the success of the agency’s work.

The Inspector General found that the ATF has indeed made improvements in the last five years, increasing oversight and better aligning its mission with the priorities of the Department of Justice. But it also noted ongoing problems within the agency, like poor data collection and internal communication. “We found areas for improvement regarding ATF’s effectiveness in accomplishing its mission to reduce violent crime, protect the public and regulate the firearms and explosives industries through Frontline,” the report states.

One major aspect of the initiative was intended to improve intelligence gathering through entering shell casings found at crime scenes into the National Integrated Ballistics Information Network, or NIBIN.  The technology can tell investigators if shell casings recovered from different crime scenes were fired from the same gun. The report says the ATF is using NIBIN more proactively than ever before, providing intelligence and solving crimes in the early days after a shooting rather than just bolstering evidence months later for use in the courtroom.

But for NIBIN to work effectively, police departments must enter shell casings into the system. The ATF has worked to educate local law enforcement about the benefits of NIBIN and encouraged its use, but as The Trace has reported, only about 25 percent of police agencies utilize the technology. And the ones that do often often wait weeks or months longer than recommended by the ATF to enter shell casings into the system.

“We found that constraints such as budget and personnel shortages, lack of technical expertise, and differing operational techniques and practices may limit external law enforcement partners’ ability to to effectively participate in the program,” the report says.

Similarly, the report states that many police departments do not trace guns recovered in investigations, leaving huge holes in the ATF’s understanding of which dealers provide the largest share of crime guns and how weapons traffickers operate. One agency official told an Inspector General researcher that only 15 percent of local police departments within his division’s area trace firearms. “He told us that if more police departments were to trace firearms, he believed that ATF could improve its intelligence for identifying higher risk FFLs (federally licensed firearms dealers) and reducing firearms trafficking,” the report said.

The report includes several recommendations, including developing better ways to track employee and program performance and improving training for agents. The report also suggests that the agency improve its communication with local police departments about the importance of using NIBIN and tracing guns — and explain why doing those things is an essential part of solving gun crimes.

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[Scott Olson/Getty]

Daily Bulletin: The Most Promising Strategies for Saving Kids From Guns

Good morning, Bulletin readers. All week we have highlighted the stories of the nearly 1,200 kids and teens killed by guns since the Parkland massacre one year ago. Today we round up the evidence-based solutions that could reduce child shootings.

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Firearm injuries are the second leading cause of death for American children and adolescents, killing more young people annually than cancer, according to a recent study from the University of Michigan. The high rate of child gun deaths is a problem that’s unique to the United States. But there are evidence-based solutions that can save lives. The Trace’s Alex Yablon and Elizabeth Van Brocklin have talked to the experts, reviewed the research, and gathered the most promising laws and programs for reducing youth gun violence.

Keeping guns locked up

One of the most effective ways of keeping kids safe from guns is one of the simplest: requiring owners to safely store their weapons.

Research indicates that safe storage laws work. A study found that accidental shooting deaths among children younger than 15 declined by almost a quarter in states that have such statutes. But only 11 do.

Holding adults responsible when kids use their guns

Instead of mandating how weapons should be stored, child access prevention laws empower prosecutors to bring charges against gun owners if they allow firearms to end up in a child’s hands. Academics have found the laws were particularly useful for reducing suicide and unintentional shootings.

When the RAND Corporation conducted its massive review of gun policy, researchers found more evidence to support the effectiveness of child access and safe storage laws than any other type of regulation.

Four states hold adults responsible when guns are accessible to children under any circumstances, while seven more penalize adults only if the child actually carries or uses the gun.

Offering therapy and mentorship to at-risk youth

In urban neighborhoods, exposure to violence can create a pernicious cycle of trauma and violence. But Chicago has found that group therapy and mentoring can offer a cost-effective way to soothe both the impulses that drive teens to settle disputes with guns and the psychological wounds those shootings leave behind.

The Becoming a Man (BAM) program uses cognitive behavioral therapy practices to help young men deal with anger and trauma and slow down their reactions in high-stress situations.

Launched in 2001, BAM now works with thousands of students at more than 100 schools throughout Chicago. A few years ago, the program expanded to Boston.

Directing support to people most likely to commit shootings

With the focused deterrence approach, police meet with potential shooters and explain that they are watching them carefully and that any further violence will put them at risk for increased punishment. During the meetings, social services providers also offer referrals to counseling, substance abuse treatment, housing assistance, and job training.

More than 80 American cities have implemented focused deterrence since Boston pioneered it as “Operation Ceasefire” in the 1990s. A recent review of two dozen evaluations found that the strategy was associated with an overall reduction in crime, including a 63 percent reduction in youth homicides and a 44 percent reduction in youth gun assaults in one high‐risk police district.

Read the full story.


Two big gun companies really, really don’t want to make smart guns. Forced by investors to publicly assess the risks associated with their products, two of the oldest gun companies in America have responded with reports that go out of their way to dismiss smart guns as a path to greater safety. Sturm, Ruger & Co. and American Outdoor Brands, the parent company of Smith & Wesson, said in similar documents, both quietly published last Friday, that they have no plans to develop weapons designed to fire only for authorized users, despite the technology’s potential for reducing shootings by children, gun theft, and black-market sales. Alex Yablon dug into the documents, and has our story.

Two Big Gun Companies Really, Really Don’t Want to Make Smart Guns

Forced by investors to consider the prospect of developing smart guns, two of the oldest gun companies in America have released reports rejecting the idea. Sturm, Ruger & Co. and American Outdoor Brands (AOBC), the parent company of Smith & Wesson, said in similar documents, both dated February 8, that they have no plans to develop weapons designed to fire only for authorized users.

AOBC in its business judgment does not believe that current authorized user, or ‘smart gun’ technology, is reliable or has any significant consumer demand,” the company said in its report.

Soon after the Parkland shooting, Catholic social activists organized by the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility bought shares in both companies. At their annual meetings, the activists managed to get proposals in front of rest of the shareholders to force the firms to report on reputational risks associated with shootings, and how smart guns might reduce that violence. Both companies’ boards of directors told their shareholders not to vote for the measures. The shareholders approved them anyway.

It wasn’t only activists who asked for these reports: Major institutional investors like BlackRock and Vanguard voted in favor of both referenda, despite the fact that the management of both gunmakers opposed the measures.

Smart gun advocates believe that the personalized weapons could prevent shootings in cases of theft or access by a child. As The Trace reported in its recent “Since Parkland” project, more than 80 infants and toddlers died from gunfire in the 12 months since February 2018. Many of those deaths occurred when a child found an adult’s unsecured, loaded firearm.

AOBC says it still regrets past flirtations with smart gun development. The company claimed in its report that the company’s reputation still suffers as a result of a 1999 deal Smith & Wesson made with the Clinton administration to invest in smart guns (among other efforts to reduce shootings). In the wake of that agreement, which was reached following the Columbine High School shooting, gun buyers boycotted Smith & Wesson and its then-owners sold the company at a discount. “The Company was on the cusp of failure,” the report claims.

Both companies argued that these failures have discouraged them from pursuing smart guns. Prior attempts by smaller companies to bring them to market have uniformly failed, the companies argued (a number of newer companies believe they can avoid past pitfalls, as The Trace has reported). “The private sector and federal government have been struggling for over two decades to determine whether modern technology can be integrated into firearms without sacrificing the reliability and durability that owners demand from them,” Ruger said in its report.

The companies also dismissed activists’ concerns that associations with gun violence constituted a “reputational risk” that could ultimately harm shareholders should regulations cut into sales. “AOBC’s real reputational risk lies with its customers and other defenders of the Second Amendment,” the report read. “Even the perception among AOBC’s customers that AOBC is undermining their Second Amendment rights could cause immediate and possibly irreparable damage.” The boycott that followed the agreement with the Clinton administration was evidence that there is a very real risk of backlash.

The Catholic activists were not pleased with AOBC and Ruger’s statements. “Both reports signal [the companies’] entrenchment, and even doubling down, on the notion that gun safety innovation doesn’t merit their serious attention, and more concerning, that any meaningful attempts to improve gun safety will be seen as a sign of weakness by their customers,” said Josh Zinner, the chief executive of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, in an emailed statement. BlackStone and Vanguard declined to comment.

Daily Bulletin: ‘This Is Not Political. It’s Human. Children Are Dying.’

Good morning, Bulletin readers. On the anniversary of the Parkland shooting, we are giving over today’s newsletter to some of the teen journalists who have been reporting on the deaths of their peers for the past year. Please spend some time with their work today. 

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“Kids Keep Getting Killed by Guns. As Teen Journalists, We Had to Tell Their Stories.” 

Allie told the story of Owen Propes, a toddler in Tesuque, New Mexico, pictured on Facebook stuffing a tiny fistful of cereal — or maybe Goldfish crackers — into his mouth.

Joe wrote about 16-year-old Loyd Drain III from Brooklyn, New York, who died in his home alongside his father and niece after being shot by his half-brother.

Nadia told the story of 18-year-old Hunter Black, who was murdered in Kennewick, Washington, months before the birth of his child.

Jimmy wrote about Shana Lorraine Fisher, a 16-year-old who was shot alongside nine others at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas, after rebuffing the romantic advances of the shooter weeks before.

Madison reported on Tarique Morris of Youngstown, Ohio, who was only 3 months old.

Born in the wake of Columbine, and sharing a nation with survivors of Parkland and Sandy Hook, young people in America today are so frequently confronted with murder in our schools and streets that we have a tendency to go numb. We’ve seen peers become victims, their lives reduced to statistics cited in political noise and cheap clickbait.

For every toddler caught in the crossfire, every fourth-grader gunned down in her home, every high school student murdered, we felt this consuming hopelessness. We were frightened. Angry. Frustrated. Powerless.

With “Since Parkland,” we’ve channeled those feelings into an effort to honor the youngest victims of gun violence. We joined more than 200 other teenage journalists to work with editors at The Trace and The Miami Herald to document the toll of gun violence on American kids.

At Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School one year ago today, 17 people were killed, 14 of them students. School shootings like it are unfathomable tragedies. But the gun violence affecting young people in our country is much broader. This project includes more than 1,200 profiles of children fatally shot during the past 12 months. Most of these young people were not shot at school, but at home, on the street, with friends, or while riding bicycles. Each victim deserves your attention.

Our goal in memorializing them was to counteract the numbness that seeps into the discussion around gun violence. Names, faces, experiences, aspirations, even mistakes are what comprise the lives we lose every day. In telling their stories, we want to overwhelm you. We want you to feel that every child’s gun death is unacceptable.

This project speaks for those who can no longer speak for themselves. It’s not political. It’s human. Children are dying. They should get to grow up. Training wheels, skinned knees. Middle school, graduation. First love, heartbreak.

We’re still frightened, angry, and frustrated. But if Since Parkland has taught us anything, it’s that we’re not powerless. We can bring awareness to the true scope of the issue. Student journalists have that power. We refuse to stand idly by.

Madison Hahamy, Allie Kelly, Joe Meyerson, Nadia Ngom, and Jimmy Rodgers

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Daily Bulletin: ‘What Insanity Is That?’

Good morning, Bulletin readers. In yesterday’s newsletter, we debuted Since Parkland, a collection of nearly 1,200 profiles of young people killed by guns since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Today we’re bringing you more reporting from our partners at The Miami Herald and other McClatchy newspapers, which used data we gathered to further explore the ways that guns harm kids.

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“A Parkland every five days.” The Herald‘s Caitlin Ostroff and McClatchy’s Kevin G. Hall calculated that figure based on the number of victims we were able to identify using Gun Violence Archive data. As they note, the true pace of child gun deaths is even higher. (Our count, for one, had to omit suicides, for reasons we explain here.) But government data operates on a lag, and lacks the level of detail our project provides. And federal research on gun violence remains sharply restricted and virtually unfunded.

Unintentional shootings are killing kids at an alarming rate. At least 150 children have died by accidental gunfire in the year since Parkland, many of whom got their hands on family weapons that weren’t properly stored. Some states have implemented child access prevention laws, which allow law enforcement to prosecute parents who store their guns negligently. But the decision whether to charge a parent after the death of a child is an agonizing one, and careless gun owners whose children kill themselves rarely end up getting prosecuted.

Many children end up as collateral victims in murder-suicides. At least 131 children profiled in “Since Parkland” were killed in domestic shootings, the vast majority of which were murder-suicides. What might help reduce such tragedies: Red flag laws.

After the Parkland 14, at least 66 other children were fatally shot in Florida. The shootings happened across the state, in big cities and small towns. The circumstances around them were equally varied — some were the result of unintentional gunfire, others stemmed from minor disputes. Even with dozens of child gun deaths, the state was not a national leader, ranking 21st in the country in terms of its youth death rate.

Wilmington, Delaware, is the most dangerous city for American youth. No city, relative to its size, experiences such a high rate of gun deaths, among both youth and adults. City leaders have made strides in recent years to address the issue, implementing new public health tools for studying violence. But with city agencies out of step with one another and federal funding nearly impossible to come by, sustaining the progress has proven challenging.

“What insanity is that?” The News & Observer widened its lens to look at children killed and injured by guns in North Carolina over the past five years, finding that at least 220 kids have been fatally shot during the period, with another 242 children hospitalized for gun-related injuries in 2016 and 2017 alone.

“It’s become so normal.” And here’s the view from South Carolina, where The State reported on the 39 kids killed by guns there since Parkland.

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[John Moore/Getty]

Daily Bulletin: Red Flag Laws Disarmed 1,700+ High-Risk Gun Owners Last Year

Good morning, Bulletin readers. A joint investigation by The Trace and BuzzFeed News into unsolved shootings in Baltimore prompted local lawmakers to put pressure on police. Meanwhile, courts across the country have issued more than 1,700 gun seizure orders in the year since the Parkland massacre, most of them in Florida.

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NEW from THE TRACE: After our investigation into unsolved shootings, leaders in Baltimore are demanding answers. At a public safety hearing last week, Baltimore city councilors asked the Police Department to provide statistics on detective staffing and clearance rates. The request comes after our investigation last month with BuzzFeed News that highlighted how strained detectives in Baltimore and more than 20 other major cities are allowing many shooters to walk free. A member of the Maryland House of Delegates said she may introduce some reform measures during the next legislative session; another said she’s setting up a town hall on the city’s crime epidemic that will address the failure to arrest shooters. Read more about the developments here.

Guns were temporarily taken from at least 1,700 potentially dangerous people last year as red flag laws gained traction. More than 1,000 of the gun removal orders were issued by courts in Florida, according to an AP analysis. In the wake of the Parkland massacre, Florida was one of nine states to  pass new red flaglaws, which allow law enforcement and other designated parties to petition a court to temporarily seize the firearms from owners who pose a specific danger to themselves or others.

A Republican senator who co-sponsored a major gun background check expansion says a new push could pressure his chamber to act. “There is a distinct possibility that we could have enough Republicans to get to 60, but that’s still an open question,” Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania told Reuters. Pro-reform Democrats are working to push a universal background check bill through the House.

An appeals court will take up a potentially significant case about guns carried openly in public. On Friday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals announced that it will rehear a case brought by a Hawaii man denied a permit to openly carry a loaded gun. Whether the Second Amendment extends to guns carried outside the home is one of the key questions that the Supreme Court’s new 5-4 conservative majority could resolve in upcoming terms.

A man walked into a Baltimore high school and shot and wounded the hall monitor who confronted him. Michael Marks, 56, a special education assistant, was seriously injured after stopping the 25-year-old man in the lobby of Frederick Douglass High School on Friday. The alleged gunman, who was taken into custody, is reportedly related to someone who attends the school. The sound of gunfire rattled students, some of whom started screaming and climbing out of windows.

A white nationalist in Vermont was investigated for harassing a black legislator. Now he’s been charged with illegally possessing large-capacity ammunition magazines. Max Misch has been accused of the online harassment of Kiah Morris, a member of the Vermont House of Representatives who was the state’s only black legislator when she assumed office in 2015. Police declined to press charges against him, citing First Amendment protections, and Morris later resigned because of death threats. In January, the Vermont State Police got a tip that Misch had purchased an AK-47 and several 30-round magazines, which are illegal in the state under a new law passed last year. He pleaded not guilty on Thursday.


Over the weekend, The New Yorker Radio Hour asked: “Is the tide turning on gun reform?” Invited on the show to tease out some of the answers to a question with big implications for public safety and politics was The Trace’s Mike Spies. In one segment, Mike parsed the power of the NRA’s “good guys with guns” narrative and its checkered alliance with the Republican Party. In another, he interviewed domestic violence expert April Zeoli, who explained the bipartisan momentum for state laws that limit gun access for abusive partners and dug into the research on their life-saving potential. The episode is worth a listen.

After Trace/BuzzFeed News Investigation, Baltimore Officials Tell Police to Turn Up the Heat on Shooters

Baltimore leaders are pressing the Police Department to direct more resources toward solving violent crimes, following an investigation by The Trace and BuzzFeed News that highlighted how strained detectives at the troubled agency failed to work promising leads, potentially allowing shooters to walk free.

At a public safety hearing on Wednesday, City Council members asked the Baltimore Police Department to provide statistics on detective staffing and clearance rates. “When people commit a crime, especially with a gun, they gotta get caught,” City Councilman Zeke Cohen told police officials at the hearing, citing the investigation.

Brooke Lierman of the Maryland House of Delegates, which has legislative authority over the Police Department, said she is putting together an information request on the detective divisions, and may introduce some reform measures during the next legislative session.

Delegate Kathy Szeliga, who represents two counties that border Baltimore, said she’s setting up a town hall on the city’s crime epidemic that will address its failure to arrest shooters. “We have to turn it around,” Szeliga said. “Otherwise, we’re going to be sitting on the sideline watching the death of our city.”

Dr. Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, said he’s in talks with the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice about creating a homicide and shooting case review process. He said he’s also citing our investigation, and its underlying data, in an upcoming report that will urge the department to shift focus toward solving more shootings.

The Baltimore Police Department’s rate of closing shooting cases, both fatal and nonfatal, had dropped to just 25 percent by 2016 — its lowest in recent history — an analysis of internal police data found. Nearly 2,000 shootings over a recent five-year period remain unsolved. Councilman Brandon Scott said police officials provided statistics after the hearing indicating that the rate has since improved.

Baltimore is not an anomaly: A data analysis by The Trace and BuzzFeed News found the likelihood police will arrest a shooter has plummeted since the 1980s, particularly for surviving victims. Even some of the nation’s most prosperous cities have arrest rates below 20 percent for nonfatal shootings.

Police frequently say that witnesses and victims who refuse to provide information are the primary barrier to making arrests. However, our investigation found that at some agencies, detective staffing is so thin that hundreds, even thousands, of cases don’t even get assigned to a detective.

Baltimore Police officials told us that they assign every shooting. Still, our investigation delves into one case in which witnesses and the victim gave information to detectives that helped them identify three suspects, only for work on the case to grind to a halt after two weeks. In another shooting, a detective admitted he didn’t question potential witnesses who had crowded the scene, nor the man he believed had pulled the trigger.

Detectives also told us that when crime spiked in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death in police custody, they were routinely pulled from their cases for days at a time in order to cover riot duty and patrol shifts.

At the public safety hearing on February 6, Col. Byron Conaway, head of the Criminal Investigations Division, said that a sergeant is now looking through open cases to see if any promising leads were left unworked. But he added that his already-overburdened detectives must still cover patrol shifts.

The department is facing a severe staffing shortage and has more than 500 vacant positions. Conaway emphasized that many divisions are understaffed. “Homicide is short. Robbery is short. [Non-Fatal] Shootings is short,” he said. “And right now I’m faced with putting those bodies in patrol, and that’s what we did over the summertime, is put more bodies in patrol.”

Still, he told the council committee he believes patrol positions should be filled first. “We’re at bare minimum right now,” he said. “But our focus right now is to get individuals in patrol, because we want to get ahead of violence, we don’t want to be reactive.”

The BPD is in the midst of implementing hundreds of reforms as part of a consent decree after federal investigators found widespread police misconduct and discriminatory enforcement of low-level offenses. But few of those reforms focus on improving the arrest rate for violent crimes.

A new police commissioner — Michael Harrison, the former superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department — begins work February 11.  Webster said that presents an opportunity to shift more focus to solving shootings. “I’m hoping the new commissioner will see this [article] as a really critical piece,” Webster said. “If he’s going to come in and drive down shootings, part of it is going to be arresting more shooters.”

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Daily Bulletin: Gun Access Is a Stronger Indicator of Gun Violence Than Mental Illness, Study Finds

Good morning, Bulletin readers. Today we bring you a significant development in the political intrigue that has kept the NRA in the hot seat over the past few months: A pair of Democrats on Capitol Hill is demanding that the gun group and its vendors hand over internal documents in response to the apparent campaign finance violations that our reporting uncovered.

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NEW from THE TRACE: A joint congressional inquiry is demanding that the NRA explain its campaign finance practices. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and Representative Jamie Raskin, both Democrats, have sent letters to the National Rifle Association’s boss, Wayne LaPierre, and five NRA vendors requesting documents showing whether the NRA made “illegal, excessive, and unreported in-kind donations” to the campaigns of Donald Trump and several GOP Senate candidates. The probe was spurred by The Trace’s investigative reporting, which unearthed evidence that the NRA and its vendors used apparent shell companies to evade rules prohibiting coordination between outside groups and the campaigns they support. Read more about this latest development.

Meanwhile, a new report reveals that while NRA leaders embraced Maria Butina, she was working to help arm anti-American militias abroad. Mother Jones uncovered a trail of online activity showing that Butina, an admitted covert agent, was advising a militia group helping President Vladimir Putin of Russia to annex Crimea in 2014 — four weeks before she was welcomed as a VIP at the NRA’s annual convention. Butina also posted on her blog warning that then-President Obama’s post-invasion sanctions, which targeted the Russian arms industry, were “a direct threat to national security.”

The Trump administration is making it easier to export semiautomatic rifles. Under new rules set to take effect next month, gun manufacturers will no longer need to procure a license from the State Department to sell AR-15s and shotguns, among other weapons, to other foreign buyers. “The changes also mean that sales of less than $1 million in arms will not require advance notification to Congress, which allows lawmakers a period of time to block a potential sale,” NBC News reports.

Study: Gun access is a stronger indicator of gun violence than mental illness. Researchers from the University of Texas looking for a link between gun violence and mental health studied 663 young adults and found that people with access to firearms are 18 times more likely to have threatened someone with a gun.

The TSA seized a record number of guns from travelers in 2018. Agents for the Transportation Security Administration confiscated 4,239 handguns from carry-on bags at airport security checkpoints last year. That’s a 7 percent increase over 2017, when 3,957 guns were intercepted, and a threefold rise since 2008. A whopping 86 percent of the guns taken from airline passengers were loaded.

A Customs and Border Protection agent in California is accused of selling dozens of firearms through a gun listings website. Federal prosecutors say Wei Xu, a CBP officer at the Los Angeles and Long Beach Seaport, bought guns — some of which were only permitted to be sold to other law enforcement agents — and resold them to people who answered ads on None of the private transfers went through a federally licensed firearms dealer, a violation of the state’s universal background check law. Police seized 300 guns from Xu’s house, including semiautomatic rifles, short-barreled rifles, and fully automatic machine guns.

After the fatal shooting of an Ohio detective, state lawmakers said they plan to reintroduce a “red flag” bill. On February 2, William Brewer, a 20-year veteran of the Clermont County Sheriff’s Office, was killed while responding to a call from a suicidal man at an apartment complex. Now a Democratic state senator argues that a red flag law could have saved Brewer’s life. After Parkland, then-Governor John Kasich vocally supported a red flag law, which could separate suicidal people from guns, but the Legislature put the proposal on ice. Kasich’s successor, also a Republican, said he’d support the measure “if it was written correctly and there was due process.”

The gunman who killed the brother of a former Baltimore police spokesman was sentenced to 80 years in prison. Terrell Gibson was found guilty in September for the fatal shooting of Dionay Smith in July 2017. At the sentencing hearing, Smith’s brother, T.J. Smith, said lenient judges “breed repeat violent offenders” and urged a stiff sentence. From The Trace archives: In 2017, T.J. Smith, who was a spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department, told us what it was like to get an alert about the city’s latest shooting and realize that the victim was his brother.


The Trace is a finalist for a National Magazine Award. The Ellies, as they’re also known, honor “print and digital publications that consistently demonstrate superior execution of editorial objectives, innovative techniques, noteworthy enterprise and imaginative design.” The Trace is one of five nominees for general excellence in our category (Literature, Science, and Politics). Our congratulations to fellow finalists AperturePOETRYPopular Science, and Virginia Quarterly Review. We are honored to be in your company.

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Daily Bulletin: The House Judiciary Committee Held a Hearing on Gun Violence Prevention

Good morning, Bulletin readers. In a single spree, a gang member and his two accomplices stole some 200 guns. In our latest investigation with The New Yorker, Brian Freskos traces the path of those weapons, from licensed gun dealers in North Carolina to crime scenes across three states. That story leads your Thursday briefing.

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There are more gun stores in America than Starbucks and McDonalds combined. Unlike pharmacies, explosives facilities, and other businesses that handle potentially harmful products, most are not required to secure their inventories.

Thieves have taken notice.

Our new investigation, published in partnership with The New Yorker, tracks firearms stolen from gun store shelves to crime scenes across the nation.

Read it here.


The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on gun violence prevention. Law enforcement, shooting survivors, victims’ family members, and researchers spoke about universal background checks and other measures intended to stop firearm-related crimes. At one point, Florida Republican Matt Gaetz, a staunch ally of the National Rifle Association, sought (unsuccessfully) to have the father of a Parkland victim removed from the hearing room.

Maria Butina’s boyfriend was also not what he seemed, a federal indictment alleges. Conservative operative Paul Erickson divides his time between Washington, D.C., power circles and South Dakota, where the U.S. Attorney’s office just charged him with bilking investors via fraudulent business schemes. Prosecutors say the case is unrelated to the investigation of Butina, who has pleaded guilty to acting as a covert agent for Russia while using Erickson’s connections to cozy up to the NRA. But two of the transactions described in a money laundering portion of the indictment include a payment to American University, where Butina was enrolled as a grad student, and another to a payee identified as “M.B.”

In 2018, there were over a million ads posted online for guns that required no background checks for buyers. That’s according to a review of gun brokering sites like by Everytown for Gun Safety. The 25-year-old federal background check law does not require private sellers to vet their buyers — including in transactions negotiated over the internet – and while some states do require checks for all gun purchases, only 6 percent of Armslist sellers indicated that they would run background checks on their buyers. (Everytown’s 501c3 provides grants to The Trace. See here for our transparency policy and full list of institutional donors and here for our editorial independence policy.) More: Our explainer on internet gun sales and background checks takes you through the steps of buying a gun online and identifies where safeguards are likely to fall through the cracks.

The Alabama cop who killed a black gun owner on Thanksgiving will not be charged. The State Attorney’s Office said Tuesday that the officer, who has not been publicly identified, will not face criminal charges for fatally shooting 21-year-old Army veteran Emantic F. Bradford Jr. after mistaking him for the perpetrator of a mall shooting.

Newly released videos show the aftermath of another high-profile police shooting. The sheriff in Cook County, Illinois, released a series of videos this week showing the moments after 26-year-old security guard Jemel Roberson was shot by police in November. Roberson was responding to shots fired in the bar where he worked when police arrived and shot Roberson, who is black, believing that he was the gunman. The videos, released in response to public records requests and a lawsuit from Roberson’s family, do not show the events leading up to the shooting or the shooting itself.

Several Parkland parents attended the State of the Union address. Manuel Oliver and Fred Guttenberg, who both lost children in the massacre last February, said they were disappointed that President Trump didn’t discuss stronger gun laws in his speech. Andrew Pollock, whose daughter was also killed in the shooting, was in attendance, as well, as were two Tree of Life synagogue shooting survivors. Officer Timothy Matson, who was shot several times in the line of duty while responding to the October attack, was honored along with Judah Samet, an 81-year-old Holocaust survivor who was at the synagogue during the attack. And a chair was left open for victims of the Las Vegas massacre. For the second year in a row, Nevada Congresswoman Dina Titus left her guest seat empty to honor the victims of the 2017 attack and to protest congressional inaction on gun reform.


Gun security companies say their ads are getting caught up in gun advertising bans. Increasingly, companies like Facebook and Google are tightening policies to ban advertising for firearms. But because videos advertising devices like gun locks, safes, and sensors often show images of firearms, those ads are frequently rejected, as well, manufacturers of the devices say. “It really blocked all the ways we wanted to get people,” said a spokesperson for one company.

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Daily Bulletin: The NRA Spent Record $$$ on D.C. Lobbying, With Little to Show For It

Good morning, Bulletin readers. The NRA spent a record sum on federal lobbying over the last two years, but didn’t get much bang for its buck. A North Carolina gun maker was raided by ICE. And Tennessee lawmakers are re-upping a bill that would penalize adults when kids get ahold of guns.

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The NRA spent a record sum on D.C. lobbying during the first two years of the Trump era, but has few legislative victories to show for it. The group spent $9.6 million trying to persuade Congress to advance its agenda in 2017 and 2018, Bloomberg Businessweek reports, but none of the bills at the top of its wish list — like national concealed carry reciprocity or silencer deregulation — were signed into law. One bet did pay off, however: The National Rifle Association spent $2.1 million supporting Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, which resulted in a 5-4 conservative majority that might be poised to expand gun rights.

A North Carolina gun maker that specializes in AR-15s was raided by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. About 30 employees of Bear Creek Arsenal in Sanford were detained after agents checked for valid IDs during a targeted raid on Tuesday morning. The company said that the Department of Homeland Security “confirmed” that it had “complied with all laws.”

Democratic lawmakers in New York, fresh from recent gun reform victories, are pushing a measure that would ban gun raffles. The bill states, “Firearm-related violence is a significant public health and safety problem and weapons should not be given away in games of chance.” Shortly after the Parkland shooting last February, a volunteer fire department in the town of Kent canceled plans to raffle off an AR-15, offering gift certificates to a local gun shop instead, and a Brooklyn restaurant canceled an NRA gun raffle amid an outcry.

Starting this month, some gun possession cases in Washington, D.C., will be routed to federal court. Only a quarter of the 350 standalone felon-in-possession cases brought in the District last year were charged as federal crimes. Prosecutors’ eventual goal is to route every gun possession case involving a convicted felon to the federal system, where sentences are stiffer. Will it work? St. Louis has more federal gun prosecutions than any other jurisdiction — and the nation’s highest murder rate. Here’s our deep dive on the limits of throwing the book at illegal gun carriers without addressing other drivers of gun violence.

Trauma physicians in Baltimore found themselves treating a gunshot victim from their own hospital. On Monday morning, a 24-year-old employee of the University of Maryland Medical Center was shot and wounded near an ambulance bay. Dr. Thomas Scalea, head of the hospital’s Shock Trauma Center, told reporters, “I’ve done way too many of these things with you guys. This one is as close to home as it has ever been.”


Tennessee lawmakers are re-upping a bill that would penalize gun owners who fail to secure guns around kids. State Senator Sara Kyle has reintroduced “MaKayla’s law,” which would authorize police to charge an adult with felony reckless endangerment if a child under 13 uses an unsecured gun to to kill or injure another child. The law is named for MaKayla Dyer, an 8-year-old Tennessee girl who fatally shot by an 11-year-old neighbor wielding his father’s shotgun in 2015. As Mike Spies reported, the NRA flew in a lobbyist from its Virginia headquarters to quash the legislation the following year. MaKayla’s mother, who’d lobbied for the bill, was bewildered by the gun group’s opposition. “I was feeling real hopeful,” she told Mike. “I never thought there were people out there who would fight the bill. I’d never even heard of the NRA.”

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[AP/Charles Krupa]

Daily Bulletin: A Lawsuit Against the Gun Seller in the Sutherland Springs Shooting Will Move Forward

Good morning, Bulletin readers. In today’s briefing: The gun industry’s “Trump slump” continued throughout 2018, despite the kind of reform push that used to goose sales. A Texas judge will allow a lawsuit to proceed against the store that sold the weapon used in the Sutherland Springs shooting. And the perpetrators of two multiple-victim shootings over the weekend were men angry at their ex-partners.

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NEW from THE TRACE: Gun sales tumbled for the second year in a row in 2018, according to an analysis of background check totals by economist Jurgen Brauer. The drop in sales comes despite the Parkland shooting and sustained gun control activism that followed. In past years, similar factors have resulted in a wave of fear-based buying. Alex Yablon has more on last year’s numbers here.

A lawsuit against the gun seller in the Sutherland Springs shooting will move forward. The civil suit alleges that Academy Sports — which sold the assault-style rifle and accompanying high-capacity magazine used to kill 25 parishioners and injure 20 others in 2017 — is partially liable for the shooting because the gunman used his Colorado ID (where high-cap magazines are outlawed) for the purchase. In a letter Monday, a judge said that she would allow the suit to go to trial. Lawyers for the gun seller say they are protected by the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, a 2005 law that immunizes gun manufacturers and dealers from most negligence suits.

A Jewish congregation in Pittsburgh launched a new gun reform advocacy group. Months after they were targeted in the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in American history, members of the Dor Hadash congregation in Pittsburgh launched Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence, an advocacy group that will push for gun safety initiatives at the local, state, and national level. The socially progressive Dor Hadash was one of three Jewish congregations impacted by the massacre.

An Arkansas bill would expedite concealed carry licenses for domestic abuse survivors. The legislation would waive the training requirement for survivors who have petitioned for an order of protection and would give state police one day to approve or deny their temporary licenses. A domestic violence victims’ advocate is skeptical of the bill, saying that during such a stressful time, it’s hard to “have good judgment about life and death.”

A detective in Ohio was fatally shot after responding to a call from a suicidal man. Detective Bill Brewer and another officer were struck during the standoff on Saturday, and Brewer later died from his wounds. He leaves behind a wife and 5-year-old son.

Three people were shot in a Denny’s in upstate New York. Police say a 24-year-old opened fire in the diner early Sunday after a dispute with his ex-girlfriend, and appeared to be targeting her new lover. The handgun he used was legally owned, according to the county district attorney. All of the victims survived.

A Texas man shot three people and himself. Police found the bodies of a husband and wife at a Grand Prairie, Texas, home Saturday morning, along with two other people suffering from gunshot wounds. Police say the suspect and his wife, who both died, were in the process of separating. The two injured victims were at the home to help the woman pack up her belongings and move out.


A gun rights payment processing site is contracting with alt-right social network Gab. Second Amendment Processing, an obscure Michigan company, will provide credit card processing for the extremist-friendly social network. Gab was dropped by the online payment company Stripe after it became public that the Pittsburgh synagogue gunman posted anti-Semitic rants on the website. In a statement last month, Gab recommended Second Amendment Processing “to any company with difficulty securing payment processing services for political reasons.”

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Daily Bulletin: Two Awful Reminders of What Happens When Kids Get Hold of Guns

Good morning, Bulletin readers. As one state moves to address safe gun storage law, this weekend brought two painful examples of what can happen when kids access guns.

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Nearly 60 percent of Americans experience gun violence related trauma in their lifetimes. That’s according to a new report from Everytown for Gun Safety, which emphasizes that a shooting impacts not just a victim but their whole social network. The report defines gun violence in all its forms — suicides, homicides, accidental shootings, and threats of violence. (Everytown’s 501(c)(3) provides grants to The Trace. See here for our transparency policy and full list of institutional donors and here for our editorial independence policy.)

Chicago just had its least violent January in nine years. The city had 20 homicides last month, and overall shootings were down as well — the 100 incidents recorded made for the lowest total in five years. Law enforcement officials hope the drop marks a turning point against gun violence, and they continue to credit investments in neighborhood-based efforts and technological policing tools in crime hotspots for driving the decline.

A 4-year-old found a gun and accidentally shot his pregnant mother in the face. On Saturday evening in Washington State, the boy found the weapon under a mattress in his home. The gun accidentally fired, leaving his mother with life-threatening injuries. Police are questioning his mother’s boyfriend, who had borrowed the weapon from a family member months ago but never secured it inside the house. A gun storage law included in the ballot initiative voters passed last year penalizes owners who fail to keep their weapons away from children. It takes effect in July.

A 12-year-old boy in California was fatally shot by a friend while playing with a gun. Authorities say the boys were playing with the weapon when it accidentally discharged and hit the young boy in the chest early Sunday afternoon. Under California’s storage law, the gun owner could face charges if an investigation determines the weapon was not properly secured.

New York will follow a slate of new gun reform laws with a safe storage measure. After passing a series of gun safety bills last week, the Democratic leaders of the state Assembly and state Senate are co-sponsoring a proposal that would criminalize leaving guns unsecured where children are present. With Democrats’ controlling both houses and the governor’s mansion, the bill is expected to become law.

A federal court threw out a lawsuit against New Jersey’s ban on 3D-printed guns. The decision rested on technical grounds: The company, Defense Distributed, filed suit in Texas, where a judge ruled that the court did not have jurisdiction to rule on a New Jersey law, and invited the company to pursue legal action elsewhere. Meanwhile, Democrats in several other states are considering banning the weapons: Lawmakers in ConnecticutGeorgia, and Maryland have filed bills to make 3D-printed guns illegal in their states.

Rogue sheriffs are refusing to enforce new age minimums for rifle purchases in Washington State. An initiative passed by voters in November includes raising the age requirement from 18 to 21, but county sheriffs in the conservative eastern part of the state have said they won’t enforce it. Yakima Sheriff Bob Udell is the latest to join their ranks. He and his counterparts are counting on a lawsuit filed by the National Rifle Association days after the initiative passed to void the new laws before they even go into effect.


The share of Americans who believe crime is a serious problem has dropped to 42 percent. That’s according to a HuffPost/YouGov poll, which put the number of Americans who believed crime was a serious problem at 53 percent in 2016. Though the decrease is felt across all political identities, it’s most pronounced among Democrats, the share of whom believe crime is a very serious problem is down by 19 percentage points. Paradoxically, more than half of Americans still believe crime has increased nationally over the past decade — though data show that it hasn’tThe more pressing concern, as our reporting has shown, is the murder inequality that mires some neighborhoods in violent crime rates exponentially higher than the national average.