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Who is Pouring Guns into Our Communities? Rampant Gun Trafficking will only stop with Mandatory Gun Tracing

September 30, 2019   |   Brian Malte

It has been six months since Nipsey Hussle was shot and killed in Los Angeles – his memorial has long since passed, and while those who knew and loved him will long mourn his absence, our attention has been diverted to the fresh tragedies in our national epidemic of gun violence. But no, it is not time to move on. Critical questions remain to be answered:

  1. Has the gun used to shoot Nipsey and two other men been recovered?
  2. Was the firearm traced and, if so, where was its original point of sale?
  3. How did it wind up in the hands of someone prohibited from owning a gun?
  4. When will this information become public?

By law, police in California are required to trace the firearm recovered in that triple shooting, and in fact, there already exists a state law that requires law enforcement to trace every gun recovered from a crime scene and report those results to the California Department of Justice.

The problem is, we don’t know how many California jurisdictions are tracing and reporting these firearms recovered at crime scenes, nor do we know the results — where those crime guns are coming from.

By contrast, gun tracing is virtually automatic after certain kinds of homicides and the results widely publicized. After mass shootings, suspected terrorist incidents and the shooting death of police officers, how and where shooters obtained their firearms is of urgent interest. Within a day — sometimes within hours — detailed information becomes part of the public narrative of the shooting.

Then we identify how these guns make it into the hands of shooters and where the last legal purchase of the gun was made. This information helps to solve crimes and it also gives us insight into how guns flow from the point of purchase into our urban communities.

So, we must stop confining this level of inquiry to mass shootings and apply the same level of rigor to gun deaths everywhere, every day. Community gun violence comes in a steady staccato of death instead of one burst of tragedy, but in the past 12 months, almost 600 people in Los Angeles County have been shot to death. Don’t 600 lives count as a mass?

Not tracing these guns, or tracing them but never publicizing the results, means we don’t accumulate the information necessary to address a key root cause of community homicide: the easy access of illicit guns.

Illegal firearms don’t just fall from the sky into South Los Angeles or any other urban community. A sequence of events and purposeful movements propels crime guns toward fatal encounters.

Guns are systematically trafficked into specific neighborhoods into Los Angeles, as they are into black and brown communities up and down the state. It may seem as if illegal guns are supplied by neighborhood fixtures — that guy in a certain van or the person who hangs out at the corner liquor store, but gun trafficking often starts with someone who looks like me — a middle-aged white man. Here’s how it works: he diverts guns out of the stream of legal transactions into the ecosystem of illegal weapons. He sells them to others who further traffic them; and then ultimately, they end up in the trunk of a car in neighborhoods where they will stoke the lethality of community violence. And, let’s be clear gun trafficking is profitable, just like drug trafficking.

I can sense the collective shoulder shrug. After all, there are so many illegal guns out there, isn’t it futile to even try to trace them all? And isn’t gun violence just a fact of life in urban communities that nothing can change? The answers are no, and no. Gun violence is not endemic to black and brown communities. Gun trafficking is simply ignored. Which brings us back to where we started — we need data. If we did have this information, following the breadcrumbs of illegal gun transactions would likely lead us away from black and brown communities — to the suburbs.

Don’t communities suffering from gun violence every day deserve this information?

The question is fraught. Federal policy says no. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) tracks crime guns recovered from across the country. But since 2003, federal appropriation riders have restricted how the ATF can share that data, strictly prohibiting in-depth trace data from being divulged to the public, policymakers, and researchers. By keeping its own records of recovered crime guns, however, California is not beholden to this federal constraint and can publicize this information to provide cities, counties, legislators, and researchers with key data to formulate policy, and it would give local residents powerful information about who is supplying crime guns to their community.

I’ve seen what can be done with gun tracing data. In Chicago, a groundbreaking study that traced crime guns found that they came overwhelmingly from a ring of gun shops just outside the border of South Chicago or in nearby Indiana. Residents were stunned. They could see, talk to, visit the gun store owners whose weapons were illegally flooding their communities and being used to kill their loved ones. They did not immediately shut down these gun shops, and nor was that necessarily the goal. The goal was to see that they operated legally — didn’t sell to prohibited buyers, didn’t look the other way when large amounts of inventory “went missing” and didn’t sell to straw buyers with a wink and a nod.

Admittedly, police departments are between a rock and a rock. Some do not have the resources to trace every crime scene gun as they are supposed to, and they may not trace all crime guns if it takes time away from higher priority policing — not unless we, the people, ask. So, we must ask.

Ask for every one of the hundreds of people gunned down in Los Angeles County over the past 12 months. Ask, so we have the information to formulate strategies and policies to choke off the stream of illegal guns — and to hold those accountable who flood them into our communities.

Brian Malte is the Executive Director of the Hope and Heal Fund, a philanthropy working to end gun violence in California.

Photo Credit: albertc111