While unveiling his administration’s strategy for combating violent crime, President Joe Biden cited a startling statistic.
Ninety percent of guns found at crime scenes were sold by just 5% of gun dealers, Biden said Wednesday.
“And … these merchants of death are breaking the law for profit,” Biden said. “They’re selling guns that are killing innocent people. It’s wrong. It’s unacceptable.”
The president was apparently referring to a government study, long out of date, that the gun lobby has criticized as irrelevant to today’s gun control debate. "The last time we had data on this issue of who is purchasing guns was more than 20 years ago," Biden said.
Nevertheless, Democratic politicians and gun control groups have routinely cited the 2000 report to call for a crackdown on rogue gun dealers.
The figures come from a widely cited study by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) that showed a relatively small number of firearms dealers accounted for a large proportion of crime guns traced by the ATF to their original licensed sellers.
ATF uses tracing to link a suspect to a weapon used in a crime and to identify gun traffickers. The bureau traces about half a million crime guns a year.
At the time of the study, there were more than 80,000 federally licensed firearms dealers and pawnbrokers in the country, according to ATF data. The study looked at about 56,000 guns traced to dealers in 1998, finding that 7.2% of all dealers with two or more guns traced to them were responsible for selling 89.5% of guns recovered at crime scenes.
Excluding pawnbrokers, however, 88.2% of guns recovered at crime scenes were traced to just 5.6% of retail dealers, according to the report — a figure closer to what Biden cited.
The ATF report cautioned that having sold a crime gun does not necessarily suggest wrongdoing on the part of the licensed dealers.
“Guns purchased from FFLs [federal firearms licensees] may have been unknowingly sold by the FFL to straw purchasers, resold by an innocent purchaser or by an illegal unlicensed dealer, otherwise distributed by traffickers in firearms, bought or stolen from FFLs or residences, or simply stolen from its legal owner,” the report said.
Ban on releasing data
It was the last time the ATF would publish gun trace data. That is because in 2003, Congress, under pressure from the gun lobby, passed legislation that prevents ATF from releasing the data.
Absent more up-to-date data, gun control groups and their allies routinely invoke the 2000 report in urging tougher laws for stopping illegal gun sales at the source.
“A small number of gun dealers are responsible for diverting guns to the criminal market,” the Brady Campaign, a gun control advocacy group, says on its website.
Crime gun dealers allow “straw purchases,” in which one person buys the gun for another person, often to avoid a mandatory background check, according to the Brady Campaign.
Making matters worse, the group says, because the ATF’s gun trace data is no longer publicly available, it is impossible to identify the culprits.
Mark Oliva, a spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, an industry trade association, said that Biden’s use of the 2000 study is misleading.
"The president is applying the problem of what he says are 5% to the entire industry,” Oliva told VOA. “He wants to hold them accountable for the criminal actions of something that they have nothing to do with.”
Other more recent studies, however, have shown that most guns used in crimes are illicitly obtained, Oliva said.
A 2016 Bureau of Justice Statistics survey of prisoners who possessed or carried a firearm during their offense found that just 7% had purchased it under their own name from a licensed dealer. Among the rest, 6% had stolen it, 7% had found it at the crime scene, 43% had acquired it off the street or from the underground market, and 25% had obtained it from a family member or a friend or as a gift.
That is not to say rogue gun dealers aren’t part of the problem, Oliva said.
“As the industry's trade association, we want those retailers to be held accountable for their criminal actions if they're participating in this,” Oliva said.
In his speech, Biden highlighted a new “zero tolerance” policy for rogue gun dealers, announced by the Justice Department on Wednesday.
“If you willfully sell a gun to someone who is prohibited from possessing it. If you willfully fail to run a background check. If you willfully falsify a record. If you willfully fail to cooperate with the tracing requests or inspections, my message to you is this: We’ll find you, and we will seek your license to sell guns,” Biden said.