Does ATF Tracing Explain Gun Violence?
What is the relationship between guns and crime? Or better yet, is there any relationship between guns and crime? This question has been the focal point of the gun debate for almost thirty years. On the one hand, we have pro-gun advocates (Kleck, Lott) who say that the more guns owned by civilians, the less crime we experience, i.e., guns are a positive social device. On the other hand, we have gun-control advocates (Hemenway) who claim that we have more violent c rime than other countries because we own so many guns.
What we do know is that from 1994 through 2000, violent crime in the United States dropped by more than 50% at the same time that we were adding millions of guns to the civilian arsenal every year. Since 2000, on the other hand, violent crime rates were more or less steady until the Pandemic, but the number of privately-owned guns has continued to climb. So, which is which?
Our friends at The Trace have just given us a new perspective on this issue. Using the ATF’s ‘time to crime’ (TTC) data for 2020, it appears that guns retrieved by the cops in 2020, to quote The Trace, “were more likely to wind up at crime scenes within a year than in any previous period.” The average TTC in 2020 was 7 months or less for more than twice as many guns as in any previous year since 2010.
It would thus appear to be the case that more guns equal more crime, right? Except there’s only one little problem, or I should say, two little problems with the argument being made about gun sales and crime rates.
First, and most important, the ATF has been lying about how the true meaning of TTC since they first started calculating it when they began tracing guns back in 1968. They are lying because they know, and every gun dealer in this country knows that the first transfer of a gun over the counter is often not the last transfer of that gun. The gun business happens to be unique in the world of retail commerce for the simple reason that the products produced and sold in this business don’t wear o
I own a Colt pistol manufactured in 1922. It works as well as it worked when it left the Colt factory for the first time. How many people owned this gun before I bought it from another dealer back in 1994? Who the hell knows?
The inventory in my gun shop was usually 60% new guns, 40% used guns. When Garen Wintemute did his vaunted study of gun retailers he didn’t bother to inquire about the breakdown between new and used guns. Of course, Wintemute knew all about the gun business, right?
But the ATF is supposed to know all about the gun business. After all, they are the regulators of the gun business. And the fact that they only use the first transfer of a gun between dealer and customer to calculate the TTC data is a bald-faced lie.
As far as I’m concerned, you could take that entire, goddamn bunch of ATF employees who go around doing those stupid and useless dealer inspections and tell them to go out and find another job. Except they’re probably unemployable, which is why they are on the payroll of the ATF.
The second problem with the article in The Trace is the assumption that when a police department sends a trace request to the ATF, that this request represents a gun that was ‘retrieved’ because it was somehow connected to a crime. Not true. Not true at all.
The author of The Trace article, Champe Barton, is aware of the fact that police departments aren’t required to submit trace requests to the ATF. But perhaps he doesn’t know that when the cops submit a request for a gun to be traced, they have to designate a specific reason for their request.
There happen to be 64 different reasons why a law-enforcement agency might want to know how, when and where a gun was initially sold. Know what the fourth most-common reason is? Try this for size — ‘found firearm.’ In 2020, more than 10,000 traces were performed on guns used in suicides. I love the tracing category known as ‘sex crimes,’ although less than 1,000 traces were performed for sexual misconduct last year.
In other words, using ATF traces to tell us anything about crime, particularly crime involving guns, is a risky proposition at best.
After I post this column, I’m going to send a donation to The Trace and I think everyone concerned about gun violence should do the same. And I’m going to donate to them even though I know that young Mister Barton won’t take the trouble to go back to his story and correct the mistakes.
The good news about The Trace is that its appearance reminds us that gun violence still needs to be better understood and more work needs to be done. I certainly can’t say that about the messaging I get from the NRA.