NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Traced Guns Come From A Handful Of Dealers

July 1, 1999

A study released by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) suggests a few gun dealers repeatedly sell firearms to criminals or "straw purchasers" buying on their behalf. Fox Butterfield of the New York Times says the study undercuts the theory that most criminals steal their guns.

The study by Northwestern University researcher Glenn L. Pierce found that of all guns used in crimes in 1996 and 1997 that the ATF traced to their initial sale (which is a small fraction of all crime guns):

  • Half were sold by 389 of the 104,855 federally licensed gun dealers.
  • The study concluded that 49.1 percent of the crime guns traced to the original dealer were used in criminal acts within 50 miles of the sale; however, a quarter of all the crime guns traced end up more than 500 miles from the original dealer.
  • More than one-fifth of guns recovered in crimes in those two years had been purchased from a licensed dealer less than a year earlier.
  • Almost half had been bought from dealers within three years.

The ATF considers a short time between the first sale of a gun and when it is recovered in a crime an indication of possible illegal activity by dealers or traffickers. A short "time to crime," as they call it, is less than three years. A period of less than one year is considered a very strong indicator of illegal activity. The study found that 49.6 percent of all guns traced by the ATF in 1996 and 1997 were used in crimes less than three years from the time of their purchase.

Source: Fox Butterfield, "Gun Flow to Criminals Laid to Tiny Fraction of Dealers," New York Times, July 1, 1999.


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