Journal Issue: Children, Youth, and Gun Violence Volume 12 Number 2 Summer/Fall 2002
Strategies to Reform the Gun Markets and Decrease Youth Access to Guns (1/2)
As the intersection between gun markets and crime has become better understood, violence prevention practitioners at the federal, state, and local levels, from a wide array of backgrounds, including law enforcement, public policy, law, and health care, have worked to develop new strategies for combating the gun violence epidemic. Many of these interventions—such as tracing crime guns, strengthening regulation of licensed dealers, and screening prospective buyers—have already been implemented to some extent nationwide and have shown early promise in decreasing youth access to guns in the legal and illegal markets. Other strategies—such as limiting gun sales, regulating the secondary market, registering guns and licensing owners, and banning some types of weapons—are being tried in a number of states and may also be effective in reducing youth access to guns.
Tracing the Ownership of Crime Guns
Since the early 1970s, ATF has helped solve gun crimes by tracking the ownership of recovered crime guns from their manufacture through their first retail sale, a process known as "tracing." In 1994, law enforcement agencies began to provide ATF with more complete information on recovered crime guns, including the identity of the gun's possessor and of any associates, the date on which the gun was confiscated, and the nature of the crime involved. As ATF merged end-user information with the results of its own tracing investigations, patterns began to emerge. Specific persons were identified as frequent first purchasers of guns later recovered in crime, sometimes over large regions of the country. They could be investigated as potential straw purchasers and could provide links to gun traffickers and corrupt retailers. This was particularly important for identifying the channels that furnished crime guns to persons under age 21, who could not purchase guns for themselves.
In 1996, ATF launched a comprehensive crime gun tracing program as part of its Youth Crime Gun Interdiction Initiative. Participating cities submit tracing requests to ATF for all recovered crime guns. This both helps to solve individual cases and yields a much clearer picture of the dynamics of the illegal gun market. Several states require that data on all recovered crime guns be submitted to ATF.
Regulating Licensed Retailers
One way to decrease the flow of guns to the illegal market is to strengthen oversight of licensed dealers at the federal, state, and local levels. Beginning in 1993, ATF undertook a long-term effort to ensure that federally licensed gun retailers are actively engaged in the legitimate business of selling guns.32 Inspections increased, and interviews were required for all new applications and selected renewals. These actions were reinforced by the 1993 Federal Firearms Licensee Reform Act, which improved background checks, increased licensing fees, and required new applicants to submit a photograph and fingerprints, and by the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which required license holders to certify that they were in compliance with state and local laws and regulations. The total number of federal firearms license holders (dealers, pawnbrokers, and manufacturers) fell from a peak of 287,000 in 1993 to 86,180 by October 1999, a 70% drop.3,33 It is still falling.
Because licensed retailers have been an important source of crime guns for children, youth, and others, a selective reduction in the number of retailers may lead to a decrease in the flow of guns into the illegal market. However, anecdotal reports from gun show observers suggest that some previously licensed retailers who regularly participated at gun shows have continued to do so as unlicensed vendors. If true, this is a disturbing and unintended effect of ATF's program, because under federal law, sales by unlicensed vendors are not subject to criminal background checks.
By 1999, statutes or executive orders in 31 states expanded on federal regulation of licensed gun retailers. The statutes typically include a requirement for state and local licensure, and compliance with such laws is a precondition for obtaining a federal firearms license.34 States are using these statutes to help eliminate illegitimate retailers. North Carolina found in 1993 that only 26% of federally licensed retailers also possessed its required state license. Those in violation included large retail outlets such as Wal-Mart and Kmart. Noncomplying retailers were required either to obtain a state license or forfeit their federal license.21 In California, retailers without required state licenses are being jointly investigated by agents of ATF and the state's Department of Justice.
Many local jurisdictions have gone further. The Oakland, California, police department worked with ATF to enforce a requirement that all holders of federal firearms licenses have a local police permit. Obtaining a permit involved a screening and background check. The number of federally licensed retailers fell from 57 before the program began to 7 in 1997.35
A very small fraction of licensed retailers accounts for a very large share of ATF's recovered crime guns—perhaps fortunately, in that this will continue to focus intervention efforts. In 1998, just over 1% of licensees accounted for more than 57% of traceable crime guns.36 As a result, ATF is conducting enhanced surveillance of licensees with 10 or more gun traces linked to them.
The gun industry has maintained that retailers with a large number of gun traces have a large sales volume and that their trace numbers are in line with expectations.37 However, in California, retailers with more gun traces than would be predicted by their sales volumes— known as high-trace retailers—account for 33% of gun sales, but 83% of gun traces.38
Future enforcement efforts are likely to focus on these retailers, who are disproportionately linked to crime guns, and on retailers who report frequent thefts. The number of retailers also will probably continue to decrease; there are only 15,000 to 20,000 gun stores in the United States, still far less than the number of licensed retailers.39,40