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As tens of thousands of students across the country walked out of their schools to protest gun violence, members of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee examined school safety procedures and gun policies ahead of the Parkland school shooting.
During the hearing, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., repeated a talking point among people who support gun restrictions and expressed the need to keep guns out of the hands of criminals. He said most guns used in crime come from only a handful of places.
"We see guns pouring into our community, and we have found that a significant number of them are coming from a very small group of retailers that sell to criminals or straw purchasers," Booker said March 14, a month after the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
He turned to Thomas Brandon, acting director of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives: "You’re aware of that, correct?"
Brandon said yes, but Booker took the claim a step further: "We know the research shows that 1 percent of licensed dealers supply a whopping 57 percent of the guns that are recovered in crimes."
Brandon said Booker’s claim rested on outdated research.
"Yes, senator. That’s a study that, I think, is over 20 years old," Brandon said. "I would not agree with that statistic today."
Booker continued to press Brandon about the distribution between licensed gun dealers and guns recovered in crimes and then talked about the need for more research on gun violence.
Still, the differing assertions made us wonder about Booker’s statistic. As we’ve found in the past, a federal report from 2000 backs this up. But there are several caveats worth pointing out.
Booker's point matches data from a 2000 report from the federal Bureau of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Department.
The report found that 1.2 percent of licensed gun dealers accounted for more than 57 percent of the crime guns traced to current dealers in 1998. The study looked at the number of licensed retail dealers and pawnbrokers nationwide and aimed to track the movement of a firearm recovered by law enforcement officials from its first sale by the manufacturer.
An ATF spokesman said the agency no longer uses that study to evaluate current crime trends.
Frank Kelsey, chief of the public affairs division at ATF, said tracing a gun used in a crime back to a dealer does not necessarily indicate illegal activity by the dealer or its employees. And he noted that a gun might have changed hands any number of times — legally or illegally — before it was used in a crime.
That said, there isn’t any more up-to-date information on the subject — and there’s a reason for that.
In 2003, Congress and the George W. Bush administration, with the support of the National Rifle Association, passed the Tiahrt Amendment, which forbids ATF from sharing information about guns it has traced with the public except with state and local police agencies in the course of a criminal investigation.
Two of the experts we reached out to (Daniel Webster, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, and Jaclyn Schildkraut, assistant professor of Public Justice, State University of New York at Oswego) said that they wouldn’t completely dismiss the findings of the 2000 report, unless there was any evidence that showed otherwise.
Still, more information is needed.
Glenn L. Pierce, the director of the Institute of Security and Public Policy at Northeastern University, helped compile the ATF’s 2000 analysis. Pierce said the pattern found in 1998, when there were 105,563 federal firearms licensees, is very similar to the pattern identified in the 1995/1996 first report to ATF, at which time there were about 258,000 federal firearms licensees.
"At least over those years, the pattern stayed very much the same even (as) the number of (federal firearms licensees) showed a steep decline due to legislation implemented in 1994 during the Clinton administration," he said.
Still, he said, it would be necessary for ATF to conduct another study to determine the extent to which this is actually the case today.
"The firearms trace patterns found in the 1995 and 2000 reports might well persist today, but it would be necessary for ATF to conduct such a trace data analysis to determine the extent to which this actually the case."
Booker said, "Research shows that 1 percent of license dealers supply a whopping 57 percent of the guns that are recovered in crimes.
Booker made his claim in the present tense, but the data that backs his point is almost 20 years old. We do not have better data to represent the current picture.
The 2000 report traced the purchases of guns used in crimes back to the original dealer. But it didn’t take into account whether the firearm changed hands, illegally or legally, before it was used in a crime.
That said, Booker is relying on the latest, best data available. Booker’s statement is partially accurate but leaves out important information about the study's age. We rate this claim Half True.
Interview, Joshua Jackson, U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Special Agent, March 14, 2018
Email interview with Dr. Daniel Webster, professor at Johns Hopkins University, March 15, 2018
Phone interview, Jaclyn Schildkraut, assistant professor of Public Justice, State University of New York at Oswego, March 15, 2018
Email interview with Philip Cook, professor of economics and sociology, Duke University, March 15, 2018
Phone interview, Frank Kelsey, the chief of the public affairs division at ATF, March 15, 2018
C-SPAN, School Shootings and Safety Hearing: The Senate Judiciary Committee," accessed March 14, 2018
AZCentral, Fact Check: Ruben Gallego's claim on ‘bad apple’ gun dealers, Nov. 30, 2015
Brady Campaign and Brady Center to Reduce Gun Violence, The Truth about gun Dealers in America, accessed March 14
Dept. of the Treasury ATF, Commerce in Firearms in the United States, February 2000
PolitiFact Wisconsin, About 1% of gun sellers responsible for more than half of guns used in crimes, Hillary Clinton says, April 15, 2016
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