Guns Lost, Stolen or Strayed

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A young man sizes-up an assault style rifle during the National Rifle Association's annual convention Friday, May 3, 2013 in Houston. (AP Photo/Steve Ueckert)

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

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

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

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

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

Vying for the honor of #1:

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

What’s even more disturbing is that the real numbers probably are much worse but difficult to quantify. Federal law requires that licensed gun dealers report any theft or loss to police and the ATF within 48 hours. But when it comes to determining how many guns have been lost by or stolen from private citizens, the ATF states:

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

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

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

“When a gun is found at a crime scene, ATF agents can’t just look up who owned the gun in a computer database. They first have to call the gun manufacturer and find out which wholesaler purchased it. Then they have to get the wholesaler on the line and find out which dealer purchased the gun from the wholesaler. Then they have to call the gun dealer and have the dealer’s files searched by hand to identify the first consumer to purchase the gun. If the gun dealer is no longer in business, ATF agents have to search through files—many of them handwritten—maintained in cardboard boxes, one by one. Because we don’t require background checks on all gun sales, all this work may be for naught.

Even if the person who bought the gun is identified, he may just say he sold the gun to an unknown person. For this secondary transaction, which is perfectly legal, there won’t be any files to sift through.”

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

Since 2006, the ATF has been further stymied by the lack of a confirmed director — also blocked by Congress — and restrictions on funding and personnel that limit its inspection of the approximately 70,000 licensed gun dealers in America. On average, it takes around seven years to get to all of them. Plus, as Winkler reports, there’s “a law that prohibits the ATF from making more than one unannounced inspection per year to any gun dealer. Purportedly designed to stop the ATF from harassing law-abiding gun dealers, this rule ends up protecting the law-breaking gun dealers, who know that once the ATF has come by, the bureau’s agents won’t be back for the rest of the year. And at the behest of the gun-control opponents, Congress reduced the penalty for dealers who falsify records, which is now just a misdemeanor.”

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

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

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

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