One of the arguments that Gun Rights Apologists (GRAs) make is that guns will always fall into the hands of criminals no matter what you do, so you might as well not bother with rules or laws or procedures that limit the sale, purchase, distribution or ownership of any kind of firearms. This is, of course, a foundation-less assertion and a rather self-serving one at that. There are two reasons why it is wrong. The first and most obvious is that even if there is a flow of guns from legal to illegal ownership, making that process illegal does send a message, secure funding, and keep the process on the radar screen for law makers and law enforcers; The difficulty of enforcing a law can certainly be taken into account when deciding whether or not to bother with the law, but only after it has been designated as unimportant or insignificant on other grounds. Laws about victimless crimes that are impossible to enforce are probably not worth enacting or expending much energy on. Laws about victim-rich crimes, on the other hand, should not be abrogated just because enforcing them is hard.
But there is a second reason that the argument that “guns will fall into the hands of criminals anyway so don’t bother” is wrong: The flow of guns from legal ownership to illegal possession can be affected by the implementation of statue, according to a recent study.
A new study by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research finds that the number of guns that were subsequently linked to crime sold by Badger Guns & Ammo, a Milwaukee-area gun shop, increased dramatically after Congress adopted measures likely to reduce the risks gun dealers face if they divert guns to criminals. The study is the first to examine the impact of these amendments on the diversion of guns to criminals and was recently published online in the peer-reviewed Journal of Urban Health.
The Tiahrt amendments were a 2003 Republican sponsored set of changes to existing statute to make it difficult to answer a question we are often trying to answer on this blog: When a crime involving a firearm happens, where did the gun come from? The US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) often knows this; Investigations of crime often lead to knowledge of which legal gun shop or gun owner let the guns slip into the hands of criminals (often with, it would appear, a financial gain). The Tiahrt amendments made it illegal for the ATF to release this information, makes access to this information via other means difficult, prohibits the ATF from requiring a physical inventory from gun dealers as part of their inspection, and requires that the FBI destroy background check information immediately after the purchase of a gun. In other words, it pretty much guts some of the most important attempts to stop the flow of guns from legal to illegal hands.
The present study looks at a particualr case with startling results.
In 1999 … Badger Guns & Ammo led the nation’s gun dealers with the most gun sales later linked to crime gun traces. Shortly after [that became widely known] the gun shop’s owner announced that the store would no longer sell … “junk guns” … that are commonly linked to crime.
Data from the new Johns Hopkins study indicate that the gun dealer apparently adhered to that policy for approximately 14 months, a period in which the number of guns sold by Badger Guns & Ammo and diverted to criminals declined by 66 percent. Reductions were observed for junk guns as well as other types of guns sold by Badger. After the Tiahrt amendments went into effect, guns diverted to criminals soon after being sold by Badger increased by 203 percent. The increase in the flow of guns from Badger to criminals following the adoption of the Tiahrt amendments, however, was not limited to junk guns. The study found no Tiahrt amendment-related increase in the number of guns sold by all other gun dealers that were diverted to criminals.
Recent legislation has strengthened the effects of the Tiahrt amendments.
The abstract from the paper:
The practices of licensed gun dealers can threaten the safety of urban residents by facilitating the diversion of guns to criminals. In 2003, changes to federal law shielded gun dealers from the release of gun trace data and provided other protections to gun dealers. The 14-month period during which the dealer did not sell junk guns was associated with a 68% reduction in the diversion of guns to criminals within a year of sale by the dealer and a 43% increase in guns diverted to criminals following sales by other dealers. The laws were associated with a 203% increase in the number of guns diverted to criminals within a year of sale by the gun store, which was the focus of this study. Policies which affect gun dealer accountability appeared to influence the diversion of guns to criminals.
Webster, D., Vernick, J., Bulzacchelli, M., & Vittes, K. (2012). Temporal Association between Federal Gun Laws and the Diversion of Guns to Criminals in Milwaukee Journal of Urban Health DOI: 10.1007/s11524-011-9639-5
Press release and source of blockquotes above is here.