Criminals get guns by stealing them, not through ‘lax’ laws

The following op-ed by Buckeye Firearms Association Legislative Chair Ken Hanson was originally published by The Columbus Dispatch. Republished with permission.

In last Friday's story "A conduit for guns," The Dispatch fell victim to an all-too-common error: attempting to use Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE) gun-trace data to demonstrate where criminals get their guns. Despite the typical claims made in the article — Ohio's laws are lax, there are loopholes in the law criminals come to Ohio to exploit, Ohio is haven for gun "trafficking" — even a cursory examination of the BATFE data the article purportedly relied upon invalidates the conclusions.

Anyone who seeks to analyze BATFE trace data is well served by reading the introductory cautions in the reports, such as "...not all firearms traced are used in crime... sources reported for firearms traced do not necessarily represent the sources or methods by which firearms in general are acquired for use in crime." Skipping this warning, the article concludes that all of the guns traced to Ohio were used in crime.

Trace data include, for instance, a "gun under investigation" and "found gun," neither of which has a demonstrated link to a crime.

Nationwide, found guns and guns under investigation, i.e. guns traced with no link to crimes, accounted for 1 out of every 5 guns traced. "Possession of a gun" and "concealed carry of a gun," status offenses where the possession, not the use of the gun, is the crime, account for nearly 1 of every 3 guns traced. Suicide and attempted suicide account for nearly 3 percent of the traces. Weapon offenses and trafficking represents another 8 percent of traces.

By comparison, aggravated assault and all categories of homicide account for just over 6 percent, or only double the number of traces attributed to suicide and attempted suicide. Despite the warnings contained in the introduction to the data, and despite the data clearly indicating that not all trace guns are used in a crime, the article repeatedly concludes that any gun traced to Ohio was used in a crime.

Next, the article concludes that all guns traced to Ohio "were first legally purchased in Ohio last year."

This is nonsense, as the data clearly indicate that the average "time to crime," which is the measure of the last time the gun was involved in a transaction that could be documented, averages around 11 years.

Far from all the traced guns being bought last year, the majority were last involved in a documented transaction more than 11 years ago. There simply is no plausible basis for the article's conclusion that all the guns traced to Ohio were purchased last year.

As for "lax" firearm laws, loopholes and straw-man purchases, had the article simply referred to BATFE data on stolen firearms, also released on June 17, a lot of journalistic embarrassment could have been saved.

Where do criminals get their firearms? Mostly, they steal them. As the BATFE data document, 183,660 firearms were reported as stolen to the FBI's National Crime Information Center in 2012, a number that BATFE acknowledges underreports the problem, as not all states require the reporting of stolen firearms (but "lax" Ohio does).

To put stolen guns in perspective, nationally, there were a total of 235,833 BATFE traces for any reason (including suicides) in 2012.

Even accepting the article's conclusion that all 1,601 guns traced to Ohio in 2012 were used in crime and were obtained in 2012, which is demonstrably false, Ohio reported 6,782 stolen firearms in the same timeframe. The article makes no mention of the stolen-gun data, and instead asks that the reader accept that a severely flawed analysis of BATFE data means that criminals are taking the time and expense to flock to Ohio to exploit our "lax" laws and "loopholes" to obtain their guns.

It seems pretty clear to me that criminals understand the easiest way to get a gun in Ohio: theft. And, regardless of how many laws are passed, that method will never require, nor would it be thwarted by, forms, ID or background checks.

Ken Hanson is a Delaware attorney active in gun-rights legislation, litigation and lobbying.

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