by Dan Noyes, Center for Investigative Reporting

Ask a cop on the beat how criminals get guns and you're likely to hear this hard boiled response: "They steal them." But this street wisdom is wrong, according to one frustrated Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) agent who is tired of battling this popular misconception. An expert on crime gun patterns, ATF agent Jay Wachtel says that most guns used in crimes are not stolen out of private gun owners' homes and cars. "Stolen guns account for only about 10% to 15% of guns used in crimes," Wachtel said. Because when they want guns they want them immediately the wait is usually too long for a weapon to be stolen and find its way to a criminal.

In fact, there are a number of sources that allow guns to fall into the wrong hands, with gun thefts at the bottom of the list. Wachtel says one of the most common ways criminals get guns is through straw purchase sales. A straw purchase occurs when someone who may not legally acquire a firearm, or who wants to do so anonymously, has a companion buy it on their behalf. According to a 1994 ATF study on "Sources of Crime Guns in Southern California," many straw purchases are conducted in an openly "suggestive" manner where two people walk into a gun store, one selects a firearm, and then the other uses identification for the purchase and pays for the gun. Or, several underage people walk into a store and an adult with them makes the purchases. Both of these are illegal activities.

The next biggest source of illegal gun transactions where criminals get guns are sales made by legally licensed but corrupt at-home and commercial gun dealers. Several recent reports back up Wachtel's own studies about this, and make the case that illegal activity by those licensed to sell guns, known as Federal Firearms Licensees (FFLs), is a huge source of crime guns and greatly surpasses the sale of guns stolen from John Q. Citizen. Like bank robbers, who are interested in banks, gun traffickers are interested in FFLs because that's where the guns are. This is why FFLs are a large source of illegal guns for traffickers, who ultimately wind up selling the guns on the street.

According to a recent ATF report, there is a significant diversion to the illegal gun market from FFLs. The report states that "of the 120,370 crime guns that were traced to purchases from the FFLs then in business, 27.7 % of these firearms were seized by law enforcement in connection with a crime within two years of the original sale. This rapid `time to crime' of a gun purchased from an FFL is a strong indicator that the initial seller or purchaser may have been engaged in unlawful activity."

The report goes on to state that "over-the-counter purchases are not the only means by which guns reach the illegal market from FFLs" and reveals that 23,775 guns have been reported lost, missing or stolen from FFLs since September 13, 1994, when a new law took effect requiring dealers to report gun thefts within 48 hours. This makes the theft of 6,000 guns reported in the CIR/Frontline show "Hot Guns" only 25% of all cases reported to ATF in the past two and one-half years.

Another large source of guns used in crimes are unlicensed street dealers who either get their guns through illegal transactions with licensed dealers, straw purchases, or from gun thefts. These illegal dealers turn around and sell these illegally on the street. An additional way criminals gain access to guns is family and friends, either through sales, theft or as gifts.

While many guns are taken off the street when people are arrested and any firearms in their possession are confiscated, a new study shows how easily arrestees believe they could illegally acquire another firearm. Supported by the National Institute of Justice and based on interviews with those recently arrested, the study acknowledges gun theft is common, with 13 percent of all arrestees interviewed admitting that they had stolen a gun. However a key finding is that "the illegal market is the most likely source" for these people to obtain a gun. "In fact, more than half the arrestees say it is easy to obtain guns illegally," the report states. Responding to a question of how they obtained their most recent handgun, the arrestees answered as follows: 56% said they paid cash; 15% said it was a gift; 10% said they borrowed it; 8% said they traded for it; while 5% only said that they stole it.

ATF officials say that only about 8% of the nation's 124,000 retail gun dealers sell the majority of handguns that are used in crimes. They conclude that these licensed retailers are part of a block of rogue entrepreneurs tempted by the big profits of gun trafficking. Cracking down on these dealers continues to be a priority for the ATF. What's needed, according to Wachtel, is better monitoring of the activities of legally licensed gun dealers. This means examining FFL paperwork to see where their guns are coming from, and making sure that those guns are being sold legally. But he says, "Let's be honest. If someone wants a gun, it's obvious the person will not have difficulty buying a gun, either legally or through the extensive United States black market."

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