One percent of the nation's gun dealers sold nearly half of the guns used in crime last year and many of those businesses show up year after year as major sources of crime weapons, according to a new study of federal firearms data.
The study conducted by the office of Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) marks a new phase of a growing effort to hold firearms dealers responsible for gun violence. Schumer's office used government data to locate sellers of weapons traced in crimes nationwide between 1996 and 1998 and found a pattern of "gun store recidivism" -- repeated crime-gun sales by a small number of stores.
The study also found that Virginia ranked third in the nation as a source of weapons used by criminals in other states and was the leading out-of-state source of firearms for crimes committed in New York State.
Some gun dealers may have shown up simply because they conduct a high volume of sales, the report said, but "others are likely to be stores that criminals and straw purchasers have discovered are lax with state and federal gun laws." Schumer's report did not take into account guns linked to crimes as a percentage of a dealer's total gun sales.
The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which supplied the data to Schumer, did not dispute the findings in the report but said they took no part in the analysis.
Several local gun businesses were among what Schumer called the 137 "bad apple" dealers who had sold more than 50 crime guns last year. A Forestville, Md. dealer, for example, was the source of 493 guns used in crimes since 1996, and nearly half of those crimes were committed in states other than Maryland, the report found.
An Alexandria dealer accounted for 241 guns used in crimes from 1996 through 1998, and a Silver Spring store sold 121 crime guns over that period.
The ATF information supplied to Schumer is publicly available but does not include the names of the gun dealers. The agency has refused to release information about specific gun dealers involved in crime-gun sales, saying to do so would jeopardize its criminal investigations.
The information comes at a time when the nation is keenly focused on the role of guns in society, prompted by the shootings at Columbine High School and a contentious debate over gun control underway in Congress. The report will likely add momentum to a growing number of lawsuits filed by cities, which argue that gun manufacturers and dealers are not taking adequate steps to ensure the firearms they sell are safe and do not fall into the hands of criminals or children.
The study found that 45 percent of the weapons used in crimes in 1998 had come from 1,160 gun dealers, roughly 1 percent of the more than 100,000 federally licensed gun dealers in the country.
"For the first time, we're targeting the few bad gun dealers who provide a disproportionate number of guns used in crimes," said Schumer, whose office analyzed ATF data to determine where the highest number of crime guns were sold. "A store that sells 1,000 guns used in crimes is not a business, it's a menace to society."
Jeff Roehm, a spokesman for ATF, said his agency uses the same data to investigate arms trafficking, but he and other experts cautioned that dealers may show up in the report only because they sell so many guns. "The fact that crime guns come back to a dealer is not a definitive indicator of criminal activity," he said. "Some have been inspected and are operating perfectly legitimately."
James J. Baker, chief lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, questioned why, if the data points to a problem with dealers, the sellers are not prosecuted.
"If they're not prosecuted, either [ATF] is not doing their job or there's no reason to prosecute them," he said.
Baker and others said guns often pass through many hands before they are used in crimes, making it difficult to hold dealers responsible.
Schumer, however, argued that it is not accidental that specific dealers have more guns traced to crimes.
"It's clear that a certain number of gun dealers look the other way," he said. "Those who use those guns in crimes know them and go to them. . . . I believe these dealers should be susceptible to lawsuits."
Dealers may not do the appropriate background checks or they may sell to the underaged or to a "straw purchaser" buying for someone prohibited from owning a gun.
Virginia and Maryland are among three states -- the other is North Carolina -- that limit purchasers to one gun per month. In Virginia, which has a long history as a supplier of crime guns used in other states, the 1993 passage of the one-gun-a-month law is cited by officials as a promising effort to stem gun sales.
"We're trying to use the laws in Virginia to get guns used in crimes off the streets," said Lila Young, a spokesperson for Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R). She said Gilmore has stepped up prosecution of gun violations.
Schumer said his office will forward the results of the new study to plaintiffs' lawyers around the country who represent cities and individuals suing gun manufacturers and dealers.
"I think this gives them the most powerful evidence yet," he said.
In a groundbreaking case in Brooklyn this year, Hamilton v. Accu-Tek, a jury held for the first time that gun companies and sellers were culpable. Denise Dunleavy, a trial attorney for plaintiffs in that case, called the Schumer study "incredible."
"The manufacturers and distributors have always had the ability to find out who these retailers are," Dunleavy said. "We say it starts at the top. The manufacturers should shut off all the rights of these retailers."
Ninety percent of all guns used in crime in New York came from other states and 50 percent of those came from five states with weak gun laws, Dunleavy said.
Schumer said he will also introduce legislation that would place more reporting requirements on dealers that sell 10 or more crime guns in a year.
His bill would also give the ATF the power to computerize records about gun dealers who sell high volumes of crime guns. Currently, ATF is prohibited from computerizing many records.
Among the dealers cited by the report was a store in West Milwaukee, Wis., that had sold 1,195 guns traced to crimes between 1996 and 1998. One store in Riverdale, Ill., had been the source of 1,176 crime guns. In Virginia, 10 dealers each sold more than 50 guns traced to crimes last year and in Maryland, six dealers sold that many crime guns.
The study said most of the stores are in suburbs or rural areas far from where the crimes are committed. It also reported that 23 of the 137 stores had either gone out of business or had their licenses revoked by ATF.
Law enforcement officials said there are two Alexandria dealers that conduct a high volume of gun sales, but neither has been found to violate any laws.
Staff writers David B. Ottaway, Patricia Davis and Craig Whitlock contributed to this report.
Selling to Criminals
One percent of the nation's gun dealers sold half of the guns used in crimes last year, according to a report by Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).
States that sold the most crime guns in 1998 and number of dealers responsible for these sales.
State Crime guns Dealers
Indiana 5,119 15
Illinois 4,287 10
Georgia 3,726 15
Virginia 2,971 10
California 2,468 12
Florida 2,422 17
Ohio 1,801 7
Maryland 1,678 6
Wisconsin 1,625 3
Tennessee 1,509 9
Texas 1,500 10
SOURCES: Sen. Charles E. Schumer, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.