To what degree do criminals obtain their guns, directly or indirectly, as a result of the activities of large-scale organized gun traffickers? This paper reviews evidence bearing on this issue, along with an assessment of the value of gun tracing data for drawing conclusions about the importance of gun trafficking.
Any isolated instance of an unlawful transfer of a firearm could be technically regarded as “gun trafficking,” and thus a person who on occasion has illegally sold a gun could technically be described as a “gun trafficker.” However, this does not seem any more meaningful than describing a person who has privately sold their car to another private person as a “car dealer.” Many criminals sell guns they happen to come across in the course of burglaries and other thefts, but they are not in the business of selling guns. A more meaningful definition of a gun trafficker would be a person who persistently engages in a significant number of illicit gun sales for the purpose of profit, however one might define “significant.”
Two varieties of gun trafficking have been the focus of especially strong law enforcement interest: (1) sales by federally licensed dealers in violation of the law, typically involving unrecorded sales to persons whom the dealer knows, or should know, are not legally entitled to purchase guns (“corrupt dealers”), and (2) unlawful gun sales by persons not licensed to be in the business of selling guns (“illicit dealers”). The former would primarily acquire their guns via lawful purchases from gun distributors, while the latter might acquire them through many different routes, including gun thefts, purchases from gun thieves, direct purchases from licensed dealers, or indirect purchases from dealers via “strawman purchasers” who buy guns from dealers with the intention of turning them over to the illicit dealer. The second type would include interstate “gun runners” who buy guns through resident “straw purchasers” in jurisdictions with weaker gun controls and move them to jurisdictions with stronger controls. [Page 24]
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF), the agency charged with enforcing federal gun laws, has a vested interest in stressing the importance of these two varieties of organized gun trafficking, because they are the main channels of criminal gun acquisition that BATF is effectively organized to control. BATF can justify budget requests in the gun enforcement area to the extent that they can persuade policy-makers that the gun trafficking on which they focus their efforts supplies a significant share of the guns used to commit crimes, and that reducing gun trafficking can therefore play a role in reducing violent crime. Likewise, “one-gun-a-month” laws that limit handgun sales to a single purchase per month are based on the theory that significant numbers of guns are supplied to criminals as a result of illicit gun dealers and their straw-purchaser associates acquiring large numbers of guns from licensed dealers. In particular, BATF enforcement efforts will appear sensible if there are significant numbers of large-volume organized traffickers, whether corrupt licensees or illicit dealers, since BATF does not have the resources to investigate every person involved in three or four unlawful gun sales a year. BATF therefore does its best to identify and arrest larger volume gun traffickers (BATF 1997a, p. 2), because focusing their scarce enforcement resources on “traffickers” who sell only a few guns each year would not be cost effective. As with law enforcement efforts against illicit drugs, the more dispersed the illicit movement of guns is, the less effective law enforcement efforts aimed at a small number of relatively high volume traffickers are likely to be.
In this light, it is not surprising that BATF reports routinely include anecdotal accounts, drawn from their investigative case files, of relatively high volume traffickers, accounts that hint, in the absence of any caveats to the contrary, that such dealers account for a significant share of the guns obtained by criminals and used to commit crimes (e.g., BATF 1990; 1995a; 1995b, pp. 18, 21, 22). Further, the Bureau has explicitly stated that, based on recent tracing studies, “a large proportion of crime guns recovered from juveniles, and adult felons, are most likely deliberately and illegally trafficked” (U.S. BATF 1999, p. 26). BATF has not committed itself as to what “a large proportion” might mean, but it clearly believes that gun traffickers supply a significant share of the guns used by criminals. To what extent is this view supported by systematic evidence?