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Report Links State Gun Laws To Rates of Slayings, Trafficking

By Cheryl W. Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 5, 2008

States with lax gun laws had higher rates of handgun killings, fatal shootings of police officers, and sales of weapons that were used in crimes in other states, according to a study underwritten by a group of more than 300 U.S. mayors.

The report, which was obtained by The Washington Post, found that 10 states, including Virginia, supplied 57 percent of the guns that were recovered in crimes in other states in 2007. The 38-page report is based on an analysis of annual crime-gun data compiled by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The analysis tracks guns used in crimes back to the retailers that first sold them.

Virginia ranked sixth last year as a supplier of out-of-state crime guns per 100,000 inhabitants. West Virginia topped the list, according to the study by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a bipartisan coalition headed by New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) and Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino (D). Maryland ranked 28th.

"It's only a small group of states responsible for interstate gun trafficking," said John Feinblatt, criminal justice coordinator for New York City. "Not only do their guns victimize people from out of state, they have higher gun-violence rates themselves."

The District, which prohibited handgun ownership for 32 years until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the ban unconstitutional this year, exported no known crime guns in 2007, the report says. There is one licensed dealer in the city but no gun stores. The report also shows that 975 crime guns were recovered in the District from other jurisdictions last year, a per capita amount that far exceeds any state's.

The report examined how guns travel from the legal market to the black market and into criminals' hands, as well as the relationship between a state's gun laws and the probability that it will be a source of guns recovered in out-of-state crimes.

"Many law enforcement officials have long maintained that a pattern of illegal gun trafficking exists between states," the report says. "This report confirms these accounts, suggesting there is an interstate illegal gun market driven, at least in part, by the relative ease of access to guns in particular states."

The study, which will be released this month, found:

· The 10 states with the highest crime-gun export rates had nearly 60 percent more gun homicides than the 10 states with the lowest rates. The high-export states also had nearly three times as many fatal shootings of police officers.

· States requiring background checks for handgun sales at gun shows have an export rate nearly half the national average. None of the 10 highest export states, including Virginia, requires the checks, according to the report. Maryland does.

· States requiring gun buyers to get a purchase permit have a lower export rate. Gun owners in Maryland and Virginia are not required to have purchase permits.

· States requiring gun owners to report their weapons lost or stolen to law enforcement authorities export crime guns at less than one-third the rate of states that do not mandate reporting. Seven states have such a requirement; Maryland and Virginia do not.

In Virginia, 2,261 guns were sold that were used in crimes in other states in 2007, while 1,100 crime guns were identified as having been brought into the state. Maryland exported 445 crime guns that year, and 1,943 were identified as having been imported.

The study is the first of its kind and comes after the mayors and 30 law enforcement organizations successfully lobbied Congress last year to release portions of the ATF data. Public access to the reports had been restricted since the 2003 passage of the "Tiahrt amendment," authored by Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) and drafted with help from the National Rifle Association. Tiahrt said at the time that he was "fulfilling the needs of my friends who are firearms dealers."

President-elect Barack Obama called for the repeal of the law while he campaigned for office, and he co-sponsored a bill to change it.

In an interview yesterday, Bloomberg said "the Tiahrt amendment was a shameless effort to protect the most irresponsible gun dealers by blindfolding policymakers and the public about illegal gun trafficking."

Gun rights advocates say the law protects gun dealers from persecution and does not prevent authorities from investigating gun crimes.

Nearly all guns recovered in crimes are initially sold legally, the report says. Many that wind up on the black market were stolen from homes, stores or vehicles. Others were sold without background checks, at gun shows by unlicensed dealers or by licensed dealers to "straw purchasers," who purchase guns for those prohibited from buying them.

ATF is allowed under federal law to inspect federally licensed gun dealers once a year, but agency officials said inspections are done at an actual rate of about one every 17 years.

"The federal laws are written to the advantage of the gun dealers," said Daniel Webster, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research in Baltimore. "It's difficult for [officials] to act decisively to suspend or revoke a license."

To increase oversight of gun dealers, nearly two dozen states, including Maryland and Virginia, as well as the District, allow or require state inspections. In those that do not, crime guns are exported at a rate 50 percent higher than in states that allow or mandate inspections.

"Leaving it up to federal law and ATF is insufficient to really hold gun dealers accountable," Webster said.

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