Ever since the NICS system went fully operational in 1998, gun-control advocates have been pushing to expand background checks beyond the original countertop sale. And while it’s arguable, to say the least, that 40% of all gun transfers take place outside of the NICS background check process, there’s no denying the fact that regulating the movement of firearms throughout the civilian marketplace means, by definition, that less guns would get into the ‘wrong hands.’ In the meantime, however, the lack of comprehensive background checks has also spawned a series of assumptions about how and why guns end up being used in crime, and these assumptions then lead to policy strategies whose effectiveness, as far as I can tell, would be questionable at best.
The biggest assumption flowing from the patchwork NICS system is the notion that guns end up in the ‘wrong hands’ because of something called ‘straw sales;’ i.e., someone who can pass muster with NICS buys a gun for someone who can’t, or someone sells a firearm to someone else who is prohibited under law from owning a gun. Another corollary that runs along the same line is the notion that many crime guns come out of the inventories of a relatively few rogue dealers who consciously furnish these weapons to so-called ‘gun traffickers’ who then set up shop on a gang-infested street. This leads to the third corollary, namely, that states with weak gun laws (read: the South) are the spores out of which all these straw sales and gun-trafficked weapons initially emerge, then to be carted off and resold in gun-tough states like New York and other parts of the Northeast.
Much of this evidence about how, why, when and where crime guns appear comes from those folks who are responsible for regulating gun commerce, a.k.a. the ATF. The agency publishes an annual report on a state-by-state basis which shows how long it takes for a gun originally sold by a federally-licensed dealer to wind up in the street. This process is known as Time To Crime (or TTC), and the average for all 50 states is somewhere around 11 years. Consequently, when the ATF notices that a particular dealer has a TTC of two years or less, there’s a good chance that this shop is somehow involved in straw selling, gun trafficking, or both. Let me break the news to you gently: If I had a nickel for every piece of research that has been published on the utility of TTC as a way to cut down on guns ending up in the wrong hands, I’d be sitting in Zelo’s in Monaco instead of the diner near my house which has a hot spot that I’m using while I write this piece.
I hate to break the news to the ATF and the gun-control advocates who rely on the ATF to help formulate their strategies for regulating guns, but the TTC data published by the ATF doesn’t explain anything about the movement of guns from legal to illegal hands. The trace request received by the dealer is based on the date that the wholesaler shipped him the gun. So the data which comprises a TTC dealer profile is based on the first time a particular gun was sold. In most gun shops, upwards of 40% of the guns that are sold (and for which a NICS check is conducted) happen to be used guns. I sold more than 12,000 guns in my shop and I can tell you that I often sold the same gun two or three times. But if I received a trace request for that gun, my response would be based only on the earliest, initial sale.
If the average gun dealer sells 30-40 percent used guns, there’s a 30-40 percent chance that the ATF trace will not be a reliable indicator of when that particular gun started moving from legal to illegal hands. Want to base public policy and advocacy on those odds? You go right ahead.