Do you realize just how bad our gun laws are?

Great stuff from Gail Collins.  I think one of the under-appreciated facts on how the gun rights folks have been so damn successful in shaping our gun laws is just how absurdly difficult to make it to trace the guns used in crimes.  And the fact that almost every gun used in a crime was first purchased legitimately– they are not being smuggled in like drugs.  Rather, legally purchased guns end up in the hands of malefactors and used for crimes and we completely hamstring our ability to actually know what these pathways are to take a rational approach to fighting gun crime.  Why?  Freedom!!  How can you really have the right to own a gun if the government know who you bought it from and when?!

Back in the olden days — oh, children, it was a long time ago, when woolly mammoths and liberal Republicans roamed the earth. Anyhow, back in those days, when you’d hear about a terrible shooting, one of the most obvious, major details to fret over was where the killer got the gun.

These days, the answer is often: It’s a secret.

Here’s how this works. Perhaps you heard we had a shooting in Times Square last weekend…

It’s very possible he acquired the gun in a street deal, or borrowed it from a friend. But we’re not going to learn anything about who originally purchased it, or where. That’s because — bet you didn’t know this, people — it’s illegal for the authorities who track this stuff to let the public know.

Yes! This is thanks to the Tiahrt amendment, first passed in 2003, which prohibits the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives from sharing information with … almost anybody. It also limits the F.B.I.’s ability to hang onto gun background check data, requiring its quick destruction. All in all, the idea is to give gun dealers approximately as much right to privacy as cloistered nuns…

 As a result, it’s pretty much impossible for the public to know if there are one or two particular gun dealers in their town who’ve sold a whopping number of weapons that were later used in crimes.

“The A.T.F. has a tremendous amount of data,” said Josh Scharff, legal counsel for Brady, the gun-safety advocacy organization. Five percent of gun dealers, Scharff said, are responsible for selling 90 percent of the guns used in crimes.

A lot of these weapons come from the South, particularly Georgia and Florida. “I-95 is known as the iron pipeline.”

A gun dealer certainly can’t be responsible for knowing exactly where every gun he sells is going to wind up. But there can be some, um, telltale signs. Like all-cash transactions, or a single customer suddenly announcing he wants to buy five or 10 pistols of the same make and model.

Most dealers, Scharff noted, “won’t make that sale.” But some will, and it’d be very useful for all of us to know who — and where — they are…

And even the most modest gun laws require what optimists might call compromise. When you buy a gun from a legal dealer, he or she will have to report the sale right away. Most of the background checks — more than 90 percent — are finished almost instantly, and the F.B.I. has eight days to resolve the rest. Then it has to destroy the information it accumulated.

What’s left rests with the licensed dealers, who must maintain records for at least 20 years. The hitch is that, as you’ll remember, those are the same guys whose identities we aren’t allowed to know.

Good news: A handful of lawmakers have just introduced a bill to get rid of the Tiahrt rule. This proposal, helpfully called the Gun Records Restoration and Preservation Act, would allow the A.T.F. and the F.B.I. to share their gun-tracing data with local authorities, researchers and the public.

Of course, as we all know, if this data were actually available, the jackbooted guns would be bursting down doors and confiscating the guns of freedom-loving Americans in no time; and we can’t have that.  So, instead, we just have the highest murder rates (by far) among developed democracies and tie our hands in every possible way to try and have rational policies to changes this.  Thousands of innocent lives sacrificed an altar of illusory freedom.  

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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