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More than 20 years ago, Samuel T. Francis coined the phrase anarcho-tyranny to describe the trend of laws increasingly burdening law-abiding citizens while allowing genuine criminals to get away with malfeasance. He offered gun control as a prime example of this and, as a new study about the difficulty in tracing seized weapons in Boston has shown, he was all too prescient on that specific issue.
In the United States, all sales of new firearms must be registered and logged with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (oddly, still known as the ATF). The federal government does not, however, require that subsequent private sales be recorded, though some states do keep such records. Scratch that: some states attempt to keep such records, but fail to do so because such databases rely overwhelmingly on malefactors’ willingness to report their own misbehavior. This was detailed in a new report titled “The Sources of Boston Crime Guns” that looked at the Boston Police Department’s statistics on 3,200 firearms it recovered or confiscated between 2007 and 2013. The results were, shall we say, underwhelming.
- The BPD was able to trace only a little over half (56.6% or 1,813) of the firearms;
- Of those, less than a third (32.4% or 587) could be traced to a first sale in Massachusetts; and
- Of those, less than a third (29.1% or 143) could be traced to at least one subsequent sale*.
In other words, according to this paper, Massachusetts’ requirement that all firearm sales and transfers be logged provided police with additional information on less than 5% of confiscated firearms (how useful this information was in investigating illegal gun traffickers is not discussed).
This, according to Mayor Marty Walsh and Police Commissioner William Evans, is unacceptable. Their solution is that people really need to help them keep records. They have thus begun a campaign to remind legal gun owners that they must comply with the law:
It is imperative that legal gun owners know about the online system, and utilize it, so law enforcement can better trace crime guns and continue to find where illegal guns are coming from.
While it stands to reason that better record keeping would have some effect on reducing violent crime, it still lacks, almost by definition, any ability to track firearms exchanged illegally. A firearm might spend years between its last legal transfer and its confiscation and may have exchanged hands countless times in between. But even if such transfers were meticulously monitored, they’d only account for about 18% of the current total, and there’s every reasons to suppose that criminals would simply adjust their habits and procure even more of their weapons from out of state.
But even if all other states adopted such laws and implemented them effectively — don’t hold your breath — the system would still fail in a majority of cases. And its usefulness is destined to decline even further in the near future. As Charles C. W. Cooke notes in the current National Review, 3-D printing will soon enable nearly anyone to build a functioning and increasingly sophisticated firearm completely off the books.
Tracking — or attempts at tracking — firearms can only ever be of limited use and always comes at a cost in state resources and citizens’ privacy. Unless we want to slip further toward Francis’s dystopia, we’d best find better remedies to violence.
* While I doubt the numbers are significant, these numbers exclude firearms that were initially sold out of state but subsequently legally transferred within Massachusetts. I have called and emailed Dr. Braga asking whether information is available on those weapons.