A serious and long-overdue step has finally been taken in New Jersey with a decision by the State Attorney General to require that every law enforcement agency participate in the ATF’s data-sharing program on gun traces known as eTrace. What this means is that when any agency in Jersey asks ATF to run a trace on a gun, unless otherwise directed for reasons of confidentiality, the information will be shared by every police department throughout the state. The purpose of this new procedure, according to the directive sent out by the AG, is to enhance law enforcement’s ability to combat gun violence and trafficking by “identifying statewide patterns in sources and types of guns, as well as unlawful purchasers and firearm traffickers.”
The good news about this directive is that it serves notice on every agency in New Jersey that conducting a trace request is now a mandatory activity, not just something that a police department may or may not choose to do. The biggest problem with enforcement of gun laws is that the ATF, which has total regulatory authority over the gun business at the federal level, has no authority to tell a local law-enforcement agency what it can and cannot do with guns picked up at a crime scene – some agencies run traces, others don’t, it’s a typical hodge-podge which reflects the federal-state division of authority that has been the hallmark of our legal system since a bunch of guys sweated through a hot Philadelphia summer in 1787 and produced the Constitution of the United States.
That was then, and this is now. The 2nd Amendment notwithstanding, you couldn’t just walk into a gun shop in the olden days and buy a gun. There weren’t any guns and there weren’t any gun shops. Most Americans owned some kind of gun back then, but for the most part these guns were old-style muskets manufactured one at a time and useful for protecting livestock from Mister Wolf or Mister Fox, but not much more.
In 2016 there were 375 homicides in New Jersey, most of them because of illegal guns. And don’t for one minute think that this violence was only a function of the inner-city ghettos like Newark and Camden; the Jersey shore county, Ocean, was right up there too. New Jersey has one of the strictest permit laws for buying a handgun, but the state suffers from an unusually-high number of crime guns which were first sold in other states. In 2012, four out of five guns traced in New Jersey came from some other state.
The problem with this eTrace program, however, is that even when the Jersey cops learn that a crime gun was first sold in Pennsylvania or Virginia or wherever, they still have no idea how the gun got from there to here. So, the idea that giving all police departments access to the same trace information about a particular gun doesn’t really solve the problem of determining the extent and flow of crime guns.
If the ATF is really serious about helping local law enforcement agencies combat gun crimes, I have a simple suggestion that could be implemented without requiring the cooperation of a single police department at all. Let’s not forget that the ATF has total regulatory authority over the behavior of every, single gun dealer whose shops are the initial source of every, single gun that is ever traced. And many guns that are stolen and trafficked from one state to another, often wind up back in a gun shop because gun dealers are always willing to fork over some cash and buy a used gun.
What the ATF should do is require that any dealer who wants to take in a used gun must first make sure that the weapon hasn’t been previously reported as a stolen gun. It’s not a foolproof system, obviously, but at least it would reduce the extent to which gun dealers play a role, unwittingly or not, in the movement of crime guns. Giving licensed dealers access to eTrace is long overdue.