Fifteen thousand guns a year are stolen from retailers in the U.S. The problem of gun theft and inventory security in gun stores was discussed in this column in “Guns in the Wrong Hands” (January 17, 2013).
That problem isn’t just accidental. The gun industry has engaged in strenuous and successful lobbying to keep secret several kinds of information about guns, their owners and their sellers.
To understand what’s going on, you have to go back to the Gun Control Act of 1968, which required retailers to collect and bank information about people who bought guns at their stores. Years later, an academic study of this information, which was then public record, found that a preponderance of guns used in crimes could be traced to a very small number of gun shops. Under the Clinton administration, intensive inspections of these stores showed that many failed to keep track of their merchandise, and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) pushed to force dealers to inventory their stock regularly so as to keep the agency aware of guns that went missing.
Claiming that such recordkeeping would amount to a “national gun registry,” the industry opposed the idea. Today, under the Tiahrt Amendments, passed in 2003, the ATF can’t require such inventories. Furthermore, under the amendments—which have been vigorously opposed by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the Major Cities Chiefs Association and the International Association of Chiefs of Police—information about customers whose credentials are clean enough to allow them to buy guns must be destroyed within 24 hours.
Among the results of the gun industry’s attack on the 1968 law as explained by the Washington Post in 2010: “... investigators cannot reveal federal firearms tracing information that shows how often a dealer sells guns that end up seized in crimes. The law effectively shields retailers from lawsuits, academic study and public scrutiny. It also keeps the spotlight off the relationship between rogue gun dealers and the black market in firearms.”
The gun industry’s friends in Congress also undermined the public’s ability to learn about the results of gun use by taking away funding from the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, a part of the Centers for Disease Control.
In the past, a few million dollars a year went to the Center for research focusing on firearms and their role in injuries and fatalities. Then in 1993, the Center sponsored a study that found that a “gun kept in the home is far more likely to be involved in the death of a family member of the household than it is to be used to kill in self-defense”—a point that attacked one of the gun industry’s most persuasive selling points.
Three years later, a Republican congressman got an amendment passed that reduced the CDC’s funding by $2.6 million, exactly the amount that had formerly been allocated for firearms research. Later the funding was restored, but with a proviso that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”
But does studying various aspects of gun safety equate to advocating gun control? Has anyone ever suggested that the CDC’s safety studies of cars, batteries or toys amounted to arguments for banning cars, batteries or toys?
The prohibition against promoting gun control didn’t prohibit studies of the role of guns in injuries, but, combined with the earlier removal of funding, it produced a chilling effect. Since 1996, no CDC studies have looked at detailed issues related to gun availability and use within a public health framework.
“In the wake of the shootings in Tucson,” the New York Times pointed out in 2011, “the familiar questions inevitably resurfaced: Are communities where more people carry guns safer or less safe? Does the availability of high-capacity magazines increase deaths? Do more rigorous background checks make a difference?
“The reality is that even these and other basic questions cannot be fully answered, because not enough research has been done. And there’s a reason for that... the influence of the National Rife Association has all but choked off funds for such work.”
After the Newtown massacre, such basic questions need answers even more urgently.•