There’s a new bipartisan bill to crack down on gun trafficking. Will it work?

February 5, 2013

Gun control can be a divisive issue, but here's something that at least some Republicans and Democrats appear to agree on: Congress could do more to crack down on illegal firearms sales and gun trafficking.


Cut down the traffic. (AP)

On Tuesday, lawmakers from both parties in the House unveiled a bill (pdf) that would place new restrictions on illegal gun transfers. Among other things, the bill would impose steeper penalties on "straw purchasers" who knowingly buy guns for convicted criminals.

The House bill is sponsored by Reps. Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.), Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), Scott Rigell (R-Va.) and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.). There's a similar bipartisan bill in the Senate sponsored by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.)

The idea here is to try to prevent guns from falling into the hands of people who aren't allowed to own them. Surveys have found that most armed criminals acquire their guns either from friends, from family members or "on the street." Often this can be done through straw purchases — a person with a clean record will buy a gun legally and then transfer it to someone who's prohibited from owning a gun.

The House anti-trafficking bill would make these transfers a federal crime, punishable by up to 20 years in prison. The bill would also make it a crime to lie to a federally licensed gun dealer — that is, there'd be steep penalties for anyone who says he's buying the gun for himself when he's not.

But would this have any effect on trafficking? Gun experts say the bill could potentially help cut into the secondary firearms trade, though only if it's part of a broader anti-trafficking strategy. "If it leads to greater enforcement of existing laws and more resources for enforcement, there's some evidence it could help," says Jon Vernick, a co-director at Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.

recovered crime guns
Since 1992, more than 2,500 guns recovered by police and tied to crimes in the Washington area have been traced back to their original sale at Realco Guns in Forestville, Md.

Research has shown that the vast majority of crime guns come from just a tiny fraction of the nation's licensed gun dealers. These stores are typically favorite targets for traffickers and straw purchasers. For instance, a 2010 investigation by The Washington Post found that more than 2,500 crime guns were linked to a single dealer in Forestville, Md (right). Note that the gun store wasn't breaking any laws.

Some states have done more than others to clamp down on these gun-trafficking hubs, says Vernick. For instance, states that have their own separate licensing and oversight systems for gun dealers tend to see less trafficking. (Congress has barred the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives from conducting routine inspections of gun dealers more than once a year.)

What's more, Vernick's research has found that states that conduct undercover police stings of gun dealers have managed to reduce illicit firearms transfers. In a 2006 paper, Vernick and his co-authors found that stings around the Chicago area had led to "an abrupt 46.4% reduction in the flow of new guns to criminals in Chicago."

By contrast, there's little research on the potential effects of stiffer federal penalties. Still, notes Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, those could potentially make a difference too: "ATF agents and federal prosecutors are limited in their capacity to combat gun trafficking, because there are no specific statutes specifically defining gun trafficking and making it a federal crime."

Another lingering question, meanwhile, is whether this bill can actually make it through Congress. That's not guaranteed, though in an interview with my colleague Greg Sargent, Republican Rep. Scott Rigell said he would call on the House leadership to allow the bill to come to a vote. “We’re going to fight to get this thing on the floor,” he said.

Further reading:

--Here's the full text of the House bill. And here's a summary of its provisions.

--Virginia Republican Scott Rigell talks to Greg Sargent about how he'll try to convince the House leadership to bring the bill to a vote.

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Ezra Klein | February 5, 2013