Now, If You’ll Just Sign and Date Here, Mr. Criminal …

 

410px-MA_-_Boston_Police_BadgeMore 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.

To wit:

  • 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.

Image: “MA – Boston Police Badge” by collection of User:SGT141. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

* 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.

There are 12 comments.

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  1. JimGoneWild Coolidge
    JimGoneWild
    @JimGoneWild

    So in 5 or 6 years they pulled 3,200 guns off the streets. That’s roughly 600 a year. Why even both? Don’t cops have better things to do than roust people for guns?

    Good post. Thanks.

    • #1
  2. Johnny Dubya Inactive
    Johnny Dubya
    @JohnnyDubya

    The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is sticking with the acronym “ATF” because it would be too expensive to get new windbreakers made.

    • #2
  3. Hank Joseph Inactive
    Hank Joseph
    @GarretHobart

    Unless we want to slip further toward West’s dystopia, we’d best find better remedies to violence.

    You are, of course, referring to Adam West’s dystopian vision of a world where you spend 50 years trying to live down your role in a 1960s kids show.  Chilling stuff.

    If the Massachusetts gun registration program can keep just one kid from being sucked into a life of campy acting and $25-a-pop autograph sessions, Tom, then I’m all for it.

    • #3
  4. Tom Meyer, Ed. Contributor
    Tom Meyer, Ed.
    @tommeyer

    Hank Joseph: If the Massachusetts gun registration program can keep just one kid from being sucked into a life of campy acting and $25-a-pop autograph sessions, Tom, then I’m all for it.

    Sheesh, you make a typo and… ;)

    • #4
  5. Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr. Coolidge
    Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr.
    @BartholomewXerxesOgilvieJr

    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.

    As my highlighting above suggests, I perceive a slight, er, failure of logic in this statement.

    Seems kinda like saying “It is imperative that people register their goldfish, so law enforcement can find out where the sharks are coming from.”

    • #5
  6. Hank Joseph Inactive
    Hank Joseph
    @GarretHobart

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

    Hank Joseph: If the Massachusetts gun registration program can keep just one kid from being sucked into a life of campy acting and $25-a-pop autograph sessions, Tom, then I’m all for it.

    Sheesh, you make a typo and… ;)

    You were writing a serious piece about the ontological barrier between law-based justice and the criminal world it seeks to control, when deep in your subconscious mind it dawned on you, “Batman!  This is just like Batman!  Say something about Batman!  Everybody loves Batman!  Make a Batman reference, Tom!  It’ll be great!”

    You tried to fight it; you tried to keep it classy.  But in the end, you just couldn’t stop yourself.  That was no typo.  That was Freud.

    • #6
  7. Pilli Inactive
    Pilli
    @Pilli

    JimGoneWild:So in 5 or 6 years they pulled 3,200 guns off the streets. That’s roughly 600 a year. Why even both? Don’t cops have better things to do than roust people for guns?

    Good post. Thanks.

    My guess is that the guns were confiscated during the investigation / arrest for other crimes.  I doubt they were rousting people expressly looking for guns.  (But it is Boston so…)

    • #7
  8. Arizona Patriot Member
    Arizona Patriot
    @ArizonaPatriot

    Look at that city seal for Boston:

    “Sicut Patribus Sit Deus Nobis” — which means

    “God be with us as He was with our fathers.”

    I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.  Boston is probably the capital of Leftist atheistic materialism in the US, though I will grant that San Francisco is a close second.

    This translation is from the City of Boston website except — of course — they fail to capitalize He when referring to God.

    • #8
  9. Tom Meyer, Ed. Contributor
    Tom Meyer, Ed.
    @tommeyer

    Pilli: My guess is that the guns were confiscated during the investigation / arrest for other crimes.  I doubt they were rousting people expressly looking for guns.  (But it is Boston so…)

    Yes. An inordinate amount of them are also found either poorly hidden in public or are discarded upon fleeing from police.

    While it’s extremely difficult to own a legal firearm as a Boston resident, it’s perfectly legal for non-residents to carry weapons there on licenses issued by other towns and cities in the state (the local PDs issue the state licenses; very weird system).

    • #9
  10. Z in MT Member
    Z in MT
    @ZinMT

    Tom,

    The ATF does not have records or logs of all new firearm sales, unless you consider the records that federally licensed firearms dealers are required to keep. However, those records are held by the firearm dealer and are rarely audited or copied by the ATF. In reality it is only the sale of a firearms across state lines that is regulated federally. If you buy or sell a gun through a private party sale across state lines the law says it must be arranged through a federally licensed dealer – who then records the sale. Intrastate sales are unregulated by the feds.

    • #10
  11. Tom Meyer, Ed. Contributor
    Tom Meyer, Ed.
    @tommeyer

    Z in MT: The ATF does not have records or logs of all new firearm sales, unless you consider the records that federally licensed firearms dealers are required to keep. However, those records are held by the firearm dealer and are rarely audited or copied by the ATF. In reality it is only the sale of a firearms across state lines that is regulated federally. If you buy or sell a gun through a private party sale across state lines the law says it must be arranged through a federally licensed dealer – who then records the sale. Intrastate sales are unregulated by the feds.

    Correction noted. I’ll add an update.

    • #11
  12. Tom Meyer, Ed. Contributor
    Tom Meyer, Ed.
    @tommeyer

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

    Z in MT: The ATF does not have records or logs of all new firearm sales, unless you consider the records that federally licensed firearms dealers are required to keep. However, those records are held by the firearm dealer and are rarely audited or copied by the ATF. In reality it is only the sale of a firearms across state lines that is regulated federally. If you buy or sell a gun through a private party sale across state lines the law says it must be arranged through a federally licensed dealer – who then records the sale. Intrastate sales are unregulated by the feds.

    Correction noted. I’ll add an update.

    Z, I just got off the line with a Massachusetts-based FFL dealer I know, and — according to him — the truth is somewhere in between us.

    When a new firearm is purchased, he is legally required to file an electronic notice with the ATF to the effect that that customer X has purchased a new firearm on date Y, though the details regarding the firearm itself are kept locally in his bound book. They are, as you say, available to the ATF via audit but not otherwise.

    • #12

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