New York's Sen. Charles Schumer has long wondered if there is a pattern to guns used in crimes. Now, he says he's found one: Last year, only 1 percent of the federally licensed gun-dealers sold 45 percent of the weapons used to commit crimes.
Using raw data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), Senator Schumer, a Democrat, has found that only a few "bad apples" are the source of thousands of guns used by criminals. Schumer's report, issued earlier this week, found that only 137 dealers were responsible for selling 34,631 crime guns over the past three years - an average of more than 250 crime guns per dealer.
The report may help keep the pressure on Congress, where the gun-control debate is expected to get even hotter during the next two weeks. In the wake of the Littleton, Colo., school shooting, the Senate passed new laws on the sale of weapons at gun shows. Now, that measure is pending in the House of Representatives, where it is part of a juvenile-crime bill. During the past week, the National Rifle Association (NRA) has been lobbying hard to prevent more restrictions.
Senator presses onward
Schumer, however, says he will use the report to push for even more legislation. This week he plans to introduce legislation that would crack down on dealers who have a history of selling guns used in crimes. "We're opening up a new front in the battle to keep guns away from kids and criminals," says Schumer.
For its part, the NRA questions the Schumer report. It says lawbreaking dealers should be prosecuted, but Bill Powers, an NRA spokesman, says "it's not clear he [Schumer] has identified dealers who are violating the law."
He adds that no new regulations are needed. "The tools are there to investigate anytime it's warranted," says Mr. Powers. "The notion that ATF does not have the authority is wrong."
Antigun advocates, meanwhile, welcome the findings and proposed legislation. "The problem has long been corrupt dealers or people looking the other way," says Brian Siebel, a senior attorney for the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence.
Mr. Siebel maintains that some dealers sell guns to straw purchasers - someone buying the gun for someone else. This happens when the real buyer has a criminal record and is not legally allowed to purchase the weapon.
"The industry could curb the problem through more oversight," says Siebel.
He cites a recent sting operation by Wayne County (Detroit) in Michigan. Local law-enforcement officials would enter a gun store, asking for a weapon. One of the officials proclaimed he wanted to kill someone but couldn't buy a weapon because of a past criminal offense. Instead, his partner would buy the gun in an elaborate charade. The entire affair was videotaped, including the comments of one sales clerk that what he was doing was highly illegal. County officials couldn't be reached to comment on the operation.
ATF officials say Schumer's findings are not a surprise. Last year, ATF prosecuted 42 dealers for violation of the federal gun laws, such as knowingly falsifying records or selling guns to prohibited people.
"We use this data all the time - this is the data we use to see who we should be investigating," says Jeff Roehm, a spokesman for ATF in Washington.
Schumer says he is also planning to send a copy of his report to communities that are suing the gun industry. He hopes the cities and counties include local dealers who are selling crime guns.
Indeed, lawyers suing the gun industry believe the report will help them in their lawsuits. "The significance of Senator Schumer's report is that it proves what we have been contending from the outset: In many instances the dealers are active participants in a system that allows the companies to sell more guns to people who can't legally own them," says Dan Abel, a partner in the law firm of Gauthier Downing, which is representing the city of New Orleans in its suit against gunmakers.
In that suit, gun manufacturers argue that individual dealers should not be included in the lawsuits.
The Schumer report is the first time this information has been compiled and released to the public. Among the findings:
*A dealer in West Milwaukee, Wis., sold 1,195 guns traced to crimes committed between 1996 and 1998. Another dealer in Riverdale, Ill., was the source of 1,176 guns used in crimes in that time period.
*Florida has the most gun stores (17) responsible for selling at least 50 guns traced to crimes committed last year. Nine dealers in Miami sold 840 guns traced to crimes. The other top states are Indiana and Georgia with 15, California with 12, and Virginia, Illinois, and Texas with 10.
*Gun dealers who sell the most guns linked to crimes are often located in suburbs, where there are low crime rates. Seven suburban Chicago gun dealers sold 3,648 guns used in crimes.
*Some high-crime gun dealers are also located in rural areas. A dealer in Tafford, Ala., (pop. 739) sold 193 guns linked to crimes between 1996 and 1998.