Local researchers and government agencies know who’s selling the most guns used in violent crimes, but they can’t name names
UC Davis researchers have spent years figuring out how young people access the guns they use in crimes, why gun owners have higher mortality rates and whether gun ownership correlates to successful suicide attempts. But recently, researchers have begun to question basic assumptions about who sells the guns used in violent crime—and who buys them.
In 1998, about 1 percent of licensed gun retailers provided almost 60 percent of the crime guns traced by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). The ATF traces crime guns by reviewing the records of the distributors and retailers who handle them. Most traced guns are known or suspected to have been used in crimes, explained a report prepared by the UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program.
The program recently looked at the 421 licensed gun retailers in California that sold at least 100 guns annually between 1996 and 2000. Those retailers accounted for 85 percent of guns traced to violent crimes. Of those, 47 retailers sold a disproportionately high number of crime guns. This 1 percent sold almost 40 percent of the guns used in violent crimes.
It’s long been asserted by groups like the National Rifle Association that the stores selling the highest volume of guns sold the highest volume of crime guns. But there’s no room in that equation for variables like retailer sales practices, clientele or inventory type. Volume’s not the only indicator. Neither are other oft-cited variables, including the demographics of a retailer’s neighborhood.
The most important predictor, according to Garen Wintemute, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program, is how many prospective sales have been stopped by failed background checks. Wintemute’s report claims that “retailers who sell disproportionate numbers of crime guns also deal disproportionately with people who are at high risk of committing crimes with guns.”
Wintemute’s team further concluded that pawnshops were more likely than other gun retailers to sell guns used in violent crimes. He believes that his research may help local law enforcement to target pawnshops and stores with lots of failed background checks, to keep them from selling more guns to criminals.
“We speculate that these retailers are patronized by high-risk persons,” said Wintemute. “Some of these are prohibited from purchasing, and the denial rate goes up. Others are not, and crimes result.”
Edward Hoxworth, who manages the pawnshop Buy, Sell, Trade It All on Stockton Boulevard, believes he’s no more likely to sell a gun to a criminal than any other retailer is. He said that singling out pawnshops was like singling out a particular car dealer and faulting the owner for selling more cars to drivers who get DUIs.
Potential buyers are submitted to the same background checks regardless of where they buy their guns, said Hoxworth, as he rifled through a file folder full of completed applications. The buyer fills out questionnaires, gives his thumbprint, is notified of gun laws and waits 10 days. If the state Department of Justice (DOJ) doesn’t find him ineligible during the 10-day background check, he can then collect the weapon. If the sale is denied, Hoxworth hands over a copy of the letter denying the sale.
The same rules apply if a person claims a gun he pawned: same background check, same 10-day waiting period. If the owner fails the background check, Hoxworth turns the gun over to law enforcement.
According to Hoxworth and other retailers, regulations are strict enough that most retailers won’t risk an illegal sale. So, how are crime guns getting out of stores and into the hands of criminals?
There are ways to hide an illegal purchase from the retailer. “Straw purchasers” are surrogates who legally buy the gun and then pass it to someone illegally. If a retailer suspects he’s dealing with a straw purchaser, he has to turn down the sale, but such activities are hard to catch.
“Common sense says that’s impossible to track,” said Hoxworth. “There’s no 100-percent proof of knowing.”
Straw purchases may have accounted for an anomaly in Wintemute’s findings. Researchers assumed that men bought most of the guns used in crimes but found that “sales of crime guns were inversely related to the percentage of purchasers who were male.” In other words, “women may be more likely than men to act as surrogates.”
Hoxworth said his shop usually sells 300 to 400 guns a year, including rifles and shotguns. He said he sees a couple of trace requests from the government every year, and they’re almost always for handguns—older guns, usually. The shop has been open for 15 years, he said, and his most recent trace was for a gun sold in 1992 or ’93. He assumes that most guns aren’t used for crimes by the purchaser, but by someone who steals the gun from the purchaser.
Hoxworth also said his shop does see between six and 12 failed background checks a year, probably because pawnshops attract a different kind of customer than a rural hunting store, for instance.
SN&R asked the ATF and DOJ for specific information on gun traces either by retailer or by county. But the agencies said that federal law prohibits sharing that data.
Dan Vice, staff attorney with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, claimed that past DOJ data showed that 85 percent of gun retailers have no traces and that 10 or more traces per retailer pointed to potential gun trafficking.
John Barritt owns one of those hunting stores. In three-and-a-half years, Barritt says, his store, Badger John’s Huntin’ Stuff, has only encountered two traces. And he claims to have sold more than 6,000 guns in that time. Because he sells long guns, primarily, he feels his weapons are less likely to be used in crimes.
“We are held to such absolutely, bizarrely stringent standards by the ATF and the DOJ in California that it’s a moot point,” he said. “We’re really not in the business to sell guns to creeps.”
Gun retailers like Hoxworth and Barritt are investigated once a year by the state and once a year by the ATF. Inventory is checked against invoices to make sure that each gun is accounted for, and both retailers say that recent investigations showed no discrepancies.
Though he believes that straw purchasers might account for some of the handguns traced to retailers, Barritt said he knows most of the gun dealers in Northern California. “There’s not one I know of who would be soft in that kind of a situation.”
It’s hard to compare the number of traces or failed background checks between retailers because the public is no longer granted the right to know which retailers sell guns used in crimes.
SN&R requested retailer-specific data on gun traces and gun sales from Wintemute; Drew Wade from the ATF public-affairs office; and Nathan Barankin, public-information officer for the state DOJ. All three claimed that they could not share retailer-specific information with anyone besides law enforcement or “bona fide researchers” because of a congressional ban that was included in the appropriations act of 2005. The new law followed several lawsuits against retailers found to have sold guns used in crimes. Though Wintemute’s team qualified to get the data, reporters do not.