ARTICLEThe Myth of Big-Time Gun Trafficking and the Overinterpretation of Gun Tracing Data
Shun-Yung Kevin Wang**
56 UCLA L. Rev. 1233
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In recent years the gun control movement has increasingly shifted its efforts from lobbying for new gun-control legislation to facilitating lawsuits against the gun industry, especially those based on claims of negligent distribution of firearms. These lawsuits are based on the premise that organized gun trafficking, much of it involving corrupt or negligent licensed dealers, plays an important role in supplying guns to criminals. This paper first assesses the extant evidence bearing on this claim, as well as on underlying assertions as to how one can tell whether a crime gun has been trafficked or whether a licensed dealer is involved in trafficking. Law enforcement evidence indicates that high-volume trafficking is extremely unusual, and that average “traffickers” handle fewer than a dozen guns. The aggregate volume of guns moved by known traffickers is negligible compared to even low estimates of the number of guns stolen. City-level data on crime guns recovered in fifty large U.S. cities in 2000 are then analyzed to investigate (a) whether supposed indicators of gun trafficking are valid, (b) what factors affect trafficking levels, (c) the impact of gun trafficking on gun possession levels among criminals, and (d) the impact of gun trafficking on crime rates. The findings suggest that most supposed indicators that a crime gun has been trafficked have little validity. One possible exception is whether a gun has an obliterated serial number (OSN). Using the share of crime guns with an OSN as a city-level indicator of the prevalence of gun trafficking, the analysis showed that trafficking is more common where guns are scarcer. The analysis also showed that laws regulating the purchase of guns, including one-gun-a-month laws specifically aimed at trafficking, show no effect on trafficking activity. Finally, the research indicates that trafficking levels show no measurable effect on gun possession among criminals (measured as the share of homicides committed with guns), and generally show no effect on violent-crime rates.
* Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Florida State University.
** Doctoral student in Criminology and Criminal Justice, Florida State University.
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