For an industry threatened by disclosures indicating its own culpability in causing death and injury, there is a time-honored strategy -- suppress the truth. As the Washington Post documented this week in a remarkable expose, the gun industry has learned the lesson well.
As the Post's investigative team explained, for many years federal authorities, at the request of police, have been tracing guns confiscated in criminal investigations to determine their first retail purchaser. The problem for the industry is that the traces also reveal the name of the licensed dealer selling the gun. These traces are reflected in a federal database of millions of crime guns -- a treasure trove of information establishing the role of licensed gun dealers in supplying the illegal market.
The Post series chronicles the work of the National Rifle Association and the gun industry to pressure Congress into passing the so-called "Tiahrt Amendment" to shut down public access to the trace data. Before Tiahrt passed, researchers and public officials used the data to reach some startling findings. They found, for example, that almost 60% of crime guns originate with about 1% of the nation's licensed dealers. They also found that huge numbers of guns were used in crime shortly after they were sold by the dealers, another indicator of trafficking out of the stores. These facts suggested that the illegal market was continually fed by a relatively small number of dealers who were facilitating traffickers and "straw buyers" for criminals.
As the Brady Center explained in its 2006 report, Without A Trace: How the Gun Lobby and the Government Suppress the Truth About Guns and Crime, these disclosures were threatening to the gun industry for two reasons. First, they suggested the culpability of specific gun dealers in supplying the illegal market. Second, they indicated the potential culpability of the manufacturers and distributors who continued to use those dealers to sell guns to the public despite the red flags revealed by the trace information. Given the huge criminal demand for guns, was the industry complicit in exploiting the lucrative criminal market?
The data also was threatening to the NRA, which works hard to propagate the myth that because criminals get guns primarily by stealing them from law-abiding citizens, no gun regulation can do any good. The trace data, on the other hand, showed the close connection between the legal market in guns (the licensed dealers) and the illegal market, suggesting that stronger regulation of dealers could curb the flow of guns to criminals.
It was all too much "inconvenient truth" for the gun lobby to bear. The NRA and the industry used their clout to shut down public access to the data.
The Post series tells the public what the gun lobby had decided could no longer be known. Reporters Sari Horwitz and James Grimaldi uncovered recent trace data confirming, once again, that huge numbers of guns were moving quickly from a small number of licensed dealers into the hands of criminals. The Post team also laid to rest several of the arguments often offered in support of the Tiahrt Amendment.
The industry, for example, maintains that individual dealers may have large numbers of crime gun traces simply because they sell more guns than other dealers. By getting access to dealer sales information, in addition to crime gun data, the Post reporters found that some dealers had guns traced to crime at a far higher rate than other nearby dealers. For example, Maryland's Realco Guns had 131 crime guns per 1,000 guns sold, while another dealer five miles away had 41 crime guns per 1,000. The Post team also established that Realco crime guns, on average, were recovered by police far more quickly after sale than the crime guns of other dealers.
Defenders of the Tiahrt Amendment also claim that trace data must be kept secret because disclosure would expose undercover operations and endanger ATF agents. But Bradley Buckles, ATF Director at the time the Amendment was first offered, told the Post reporters that his agency did not ask for the new disclosure restrictions. Indeed, ATF had long disclosed trace data requested under the Freedom of Information Act, which gave the agency authority to delete any information that would jeopardize a law enforcement investigation. The real motive behind the Amendment was candidly admitted by its sponsor, Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kansas). When he introduced his Amendment in July, 2003, he said, "I wanted to make sure I was fulfilling the needs of my friends who are firearms dealers." (In a form of rough justice, Tiahrt was defeated in a Senate primary earlier this year.)
Having thought they had buried the truth for all time, the NRA and the industry have been busy promoting legislation, the misnamed "ATF Firearms Reform and Modernization Act," to further emasculate the agency's already anemic power to crack down on corrupt gun dealers. The Washington Post has certainly complicated the gun lobby's plan. Facts have a tendency to complicate the lives of ideologues.
If the "reformers" want to argue for weakening, rather than strengthening, regulation of gun dealers, then let's put all the data on the table. Let the gun lobby make its case that crime gun trace data says nothing about the role of dealers in supplying the illegal gun market. But suppression of the data itself is nothing but a policy of government-enforced ignorance. The Tiahrt Amendment should be repealed.
For more information, see Dennis Henigan's Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy (Potomac Books 2009)