Study finds federal amendments increased gun sales diverted to criminals

Jan 09, 2012

A new study by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research finds that the number of guns that were subsequently linked to crime sold by Badger Guns & Ammo, a Milwaukee-area gun shop, increased dramatically after Congress adopted measures likely to reduce the risks gun dealers face if they divert guns to criminals. The study is the first to examine the impact of these amendments on the diversion of guns to criminals and was recently published online in the peer-reviewed Journal of Urban Health.

The Tiahrt amendments are a series of amendments to appropriations bills and named for the sponsor, former U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-KS. They became law in 2003 and prohibit the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) from releasing data from crime gun traces. Gun traces reveal when, where, and from whom a gun recovered from a crime was originally purchased. In 2004, the Tiahrt amendments further restricted crime gun-trace data by limiting access to government officials and prohibiting the use of these data in firearm dealer license revocations and civil law suits. In addition, the law prohibits ATF from requiring gun dealers to do a physical inventory of their firearms for compliance inspections and requires the FBI to destroy data from background checks of gun purchasers within 24 hours.

In 1999, ATF data showed that Badger Guns & Ammo led the nation's gun dealers with the most gun sales later linked to crime gun traces. Shortly after the announcement, the gun shop's owner announced that the store would no longer sell small, poorly made handguns (sometimes referred to as "junk guns") that are commonly linked to crime.

Data from the new Johns Hopkins study indicate that the gun dealer apparently adhered to that policy for approximately 14 months, a period in which the number of guns sold by Badger Guns & Ammo and diverted to declined by 66 percent. Reductions were observed for junk guns as well as other types of guns sold by Badger. After the Tiahrt amendments went into effect, guns diverted to criminals soon after being sold by Badger increased by 203 percent. The increase in the flow of guns from Badger to criminals following the adoption of the Tiahrt amendments, however, was not limited to junk guns. The study found no Tiahrt amendment-related increase in the number of guns sold by all other gun dealers that were diverted to criminals.

"Our findings suggest that changes to federal gun policy prompted a dramatic increase in the flow of guns to criminals from a gun dealer whose practices have frequently been of concern to law enforcement and public safety advocates," said lead study author Daniel Webster, ScD, MPH, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research and professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Webster added, "The fact that the ATF took action which led the gun dealer to surrender his license in 2006 supports the idea that the large increase in Badger's guns diverted to criminals was related to gun dealer practices."

Study co-author and Center co-director Jon Vernick, JD, MPH, said, "our findings are consistent with other research that has shown that greater oversight and regulation of gun sellers is linked with fewer guns diverted to criminals shortly after retail sales."

For the study, researchers examined data from firearms recovered by the Milwaukee Police Department and traced by the ATF from 1996 through 2006. Data for guns traced during 2003 to 2006 when the Tiahrt restrictions on ATF were in place were obtained from the Milwaukee Police Department. The number of firearms recovered by police less than a year following retail sale from someone other than the legal purchaser was used to track trends in illegal gun transfers.

Congress recently passed another appropriations bill with an amendment that makes permanent most of the protections for sellers that in prior Tiahrt amendments been limited to the fiscal year covered under appropriations bills.

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More information: The study "Temporal Association Between Federal Gun Laws and the Diversion of Guns to Criminals in Milwaukee" is by Daniel W. Webster, Jon S. Vernick, Maria T. Bulzacchelli, and Katherine A. Vittes in the Journal of Urban Health.

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