Friday, October 31st, 2014

U.S. Rep. James Langevin says 60 percent of the weapons used in crimes come from 1 percent of U.S. gun dealers

U.S. Rep. James Langevin, D, Rhode Island
U.S. Rep. James Langevin, D, Rhode Island

During a panel discussion on gun violence at the annual meeting of the Rhode Island Public Health Association, U.S. Rep. James Langevin startled the crowd when he declared that 1 percent of gun dealers nationally are responsible for selling 60 percent of the weapons used in crimes.

His Oct. 21 comment took us aback as well. Only a tiny fraction of gun dealers have provided the weapons for most gun-related crimes in the United States?

We decided to check.

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When we contacted Langevin's officer, his spokeswoman confirmed his comment and sent us evidence -- a report from the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives titled "Commerce in Firearms in the United States -- February 2000."

On page two of the report, the ATF says that its "tracing data has shown that a small number of dealers account for a large proportion of the firearms traced from crimes. Just 1.2 percent of dealers -- 1,020 of the approximately 83,200 licensed retail dealers and pawnbrokers -- accounted for over 57 percent of the crime guns traced to current dealers in 1998."

That’s a bit more than 1 percent of the gun dealers and a bit less than 60 percent of the crime, but very close.

The report also said that "just over 450 licensed dealers in 1998 had 10 or more crime guns with a time-to-crime of three years or less traced to them. ATF is now targeting enforcement and inspection resources at these dealers, as well as making crime gun trace analysis available to criminal investigators." ("Time to crime" is the period between the gun being sold and its use in a crime.)

The hope was that by following up on the traced gun, the ATF could determine why so many guns were going from "this relatively small proportion of dealers to the illegal market and take regulatory and criminal enforcement actions that will curb this illegal flow of guns," according to the report.

What has happened in the 13 years since the report?

Nothing. The ATF analysis was done by a group led by Glenn Pierce of Northeastern University in Boston. "I expected a concentration" in the number of dealers responsible for crime-related guns, he said. "The extreme concentration was a surprise to me."

After ATF began publicizing the data, Congress and the Bush administration, with the support of the National Rifle Association, passed the so-called Tiahrt Amendment, which prevents the release of gun-tracing data on a dealer level to researchers, the media and the public.

"It shut down getting crime gun data to examine," said Joseph Vince, a former special agent at the ATF, who was at the agency from 1971 to 1999. He now directs the criminal justice program at Mount St. Mary's University in Maryland. "They cut it off because people knew who the dirty dealers were," referring to both rogue dealers and dealers whose business practices were so sloppy they were a magnet for criminals looking for a weapon.

NRA Executive Director Chris W. Cox said in a March 21, 2013, commentary in USA Today that the Tiahrt Amendment was designed to block the firearm tracing system from being used "as evidence in lawsuits against the firearms industry and in shaky statistical 'studies.'"

ATF spokeswoman Janice Kemp said an updated version of the dealer-specific data published in its 2000 report was not available.

To recap, U.S. Rep. James Langevin said  "1 percent of gun dealers nationally are responsible for selling 60 percent of the weapons used in crimes."

That statistic is widely quoted and, if it wasn't based on data compiled 15 years ago, we would rule Langevin's statement as Mostly True, bringing him down a notch because the actual number was 57 percent.

But the PolitiFact judges felt they couldn't make a ruling in this case because the data are too old, nothing more recent is available and -- thanks to a change in federal law passed a decade ago -- it seems unlikely that such information will be restored to the public domain anytime soon.

(If you have a claim you’d like PolitiFact Rhode Island to check, e-mail us at politifact@providencejournal.com. And follow us on Twitter: @politifactri.)