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December 8, 2008

Cognitive Dissonance

There is an interesting mental charade that goes on between scientific researchers on the one hand and, public policy makers and American gun owners on the other. It goes something like this. Highly trained social science and/or medical researchers conduct a massive, peer-reviewed study on the effects of gun laws on violent crime rates in America. They—not surprisingly—find that states with lax gun laws have higher rates of handgun killings, fatal shootings of police officers, and sales of weapons that are used in crimes in other states.

The results of the study are released. The press downplays or completely ignores the study. The pro-gun lobby denounces the study as biased and inaccurate. The public policy makers—if they are even aware of the study—completely ignore the findings and continue to dodge the problem.

This past week, a 38-page study on “The Movement of Illegal Guns” was released by a group of more than 320 U.S. mayors and reported on by the Washington Post. Mayors Against Illegal Guns based the study on new Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) data that had previously been withheld from the public.

The report finds that, “The stark differences in crime gun export rates appear to confirm the existence of an interstate illegal gun market, where a handful of states stand out as major sources for crime guns … States that export illegal guns at the highest rates have comparatively weak gun laws ... [These states] not only supply crime guns to other states, but they themselves also suffer higher rates of gun murders and fatal shootings of police officers than states with low crime gun export rates.

The Post ran the story on page A-10 of the paper. It will be fascinating to see what kind of coverage—if any—the report will receive from the nation’s other news media now that it has been officially released. More important will be how public policy makers respond to the data.

If the past is prologue, the NRA will once again denounce the study as “biased,” elected officials will ignore it and the anti-regulation faction will engage in “cognitive dissonance” and become more dedicated to their pro-gun myths than before.

The only thing that can break this cycle is you. You can obtain a PDF copy of the report from Mayors Against Illegal Guns and see that it is widely covered by your local news outlets. You can make sure that it is brought to the attention of every one of your elected public officials. Do not let them ignore this important public safety data. You can make a difference when armed with the facts.


  1. Talk about Dissonance, that would be the MAIG groups use of trace data.

    Doesn't page 2 of every report read:
    (1)Firearm traces are designed to assist law enforcement authorities in conducting investigations by tracking the sale and possession of specific firearms. Law enforcement agencies may request firearm traces for any reason, and those reasons are not necessarily reported to the Federal Government. Not all firearms used in crime are traced and not all firearms traced are used in Crime"

    Wow, sound like not all firearms are traced solely for the purpose of crime, so wouldn't it be a mistake to base information on trace data?

    Also page 2 reads
    (2) Firearms selected for tracing are not chosen for purposes of determining why types, makes or models of firearms are used for illicit purposes. The firearms selected do not constitute a random sample and should not be considered representative of the larger universe of all firearms used by criminals or any subset of that universe. Firearms are normally traced to the first retail seller, and sources reported for firearms traced do necessarily represent the sources or methods by which firearms in general are acquired for use in crime

    Let's repeat that last part again for the those that want to misuse data (can anyone say MAIG):

    sources reported for firearms traced do necessarily represent the sources or methods by which firearms in general are acquired for use in crime

    So the "study" by MAIG...a group against 'illegal guns' found that 'illegal guns' come from states with laws they don't like....by using a resource that the ATF says shouldn't be used for that purpose.

    Do you not see the problems with this "study"?

    How about let's look at some of the ATF numbers

    In Texas in 2007 there were 14,111 traces ran; the largest category of those being traced were for simple possession of a weapon - 28.73%. This is simply a check ensure they person with the weapon hasn't stolen it. If it had been stolen it would have been listed under Weapons Offense - only 8.7% of the traces.

    The second largest category of traces is "found firearm"; lost or stolen guns being traced back to their rightful owners. Even that is only 11.22% of the traces.

    So 2 of the largest categories for firearm traces have nothing to do with or very little to do with crimes.

    How about some other figures available from the ATF 2007 report for Texas
    Let's look at average time to crime rates

    Less then 3 months - 515 traces
    3 to 7 months - 444 traces
    7 months to 1 year - 446 traces
    1 to 2 years - 914 traces
    2 to 3 years - 534 traces
    3 years or more - 5817 traces.

    Wow, most of the firearms are sold 3 years or more before they are traced....hardly the sign of fast moving illegal guns being used in crime is it?

    The average "time to crime" for Texas was 9.76 years

    Nearly a decade after firearms are first sold by a retailer for them to be subjected to an ATF trace.

    National Average for "time to crime" is 10.33 years.

    Surely crooks don't wait 10 years before using a firearm they just bought illegally, surely the cops catch criminals faster then that.

    Face it, the study is bogus.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Bob S. The “Firearms Trace Data Disclaimer” that you cited from the ATF’s trace reports was drafted not by the ATF, but by the National Rifle Association (NRA). This disclaimer is part of the “Tiahrt Amendments,” riders which have been attached to the ATF appropriations bill every year since 2003 at the behest of the NRA. These amendments require ATF—by law—to add this disclaimer to every report they publish that uses crime gun trace data.

    The sponsor of the Tiahrt Amendments is Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-KS). He explained the amendments this way when they were first introduced: “I wanted to make sure I was fulfilling the needs of my friends who are firearms dealers.” NRA officials “were very helpful in making sure I had my bases covered.”

    Here are a couple of good citations from ATF officials speaking in their own words about crime gun trace data:

    “Continued growth of our ability to reduce the illegal market in firearms through enforcement activity clearly depends on expansion of our investment in comprehensive tracing of firearms and use of trace analysis…” (“Following the Gun,” p. 44).

    Mark Kraft, a Special Agent with the ATF and the Deputy Director of the agency’s Gang Targeting, Enforcement and Coordination Center, wrote in an article entitled “Firearms Trafficking 101 or Where Do Crime Guns Come From?”: “The key to understanding firearms trafficking is comprehensive crime gun tracing. This means tracing all firearms recovered by law enforcement that were used in a crime, suspected to have been used in a crime, or recovered in relation to a crime. This not only provides potential leads in that investigation, but also establishes a clear picture of where crime guns originate. While an individual gun trace frequently provides a valuable lead in a particular case, identifying an additional witness or coconspirator, having a database of crime guns that can be evaluated for trends and patterns is also very useful. ATF has identified firearms trafficking operations from observable patterns in trace data. There is no central database of firearm ownership. Indeed, Federal law prohibits such a database. What ATF has, as a result of crime gun traces from law enforcement agencies across the nation and around the world, is a database containing only information on crime guns. If twenty firearms all trafficked by the same individual in Texas are recovered in Chicago by different police officers in unrelated crimes, there is very little chance of the trafficker being identified without tracing. Through the comprehensive tracing of crime guns and the analysis of trace data, ATF's Crime Gun Analysis Branch will quickly identify a pattern of twenty crime guns from Texas being recovered in Chicago. This information is valuable to law enforcement officers in both locations.”

    In any case, Mayors Against Illegal Guns make it clear on pp. 28-29 of their report that traced firearms do not represent all crime guns (as not all crime guns are recovered) and not all efforts to trace guns are successful (“ATF relies on accurate record-keeping by gun manufacturers, gun wholesalers, and gun retailers. Failure to keep complete records or failure to comply with ATF requests can make it impossible to trace all firearms. Moreover, guns that were purchased 20 or more years ago are often untraceable because gun dealers are only required to keep sales records for 20 years.”). Nonetheless, they note on p. 29: “While these failed traces mean that the overall export rates calculated in this report undercount the number of guns, there is no evidence that this distorts this report’s findings because the distribution of incomplete traces does not vary substantially among states.”

    You have also misstated the findings of Texas’ 2007 trace report. Under the slide labeled “Top Categories Reported on Firearm Traces with a Texas Recovery,” the two largest categories listed are “Possession of Weapon” (and there is no data here to indicate these were not criminal offenses or traced in relation to a criminal offense) and “Other Categories” (unspecified by Texas authorities). The third largest category is “Dangerous Drugs” followed by “Found Firearm” (which would include firearms abandoned or stashed by criminals). Again, there is no data anywhere on this slide to suggest that the firearms in any of these categories “had very little to do with crimes.” If you have that specific data from a different source, please provide a citation to it.

    Furthermore, you seem to have a fundamental misunderstanding about the concept of “time-to-crime.” Time-to-crime does not define the time it takes for a gun to be used in crime for the first time, but rather the time from when a gun is first purchased from a retail gun dealer to when it is first physically recovered from a crime scene. The gun(s) in question might have been used several times in crime before being recovered by law enforcement. Even pro-gun researcher John Lott has noted that “criminals very rarely leave their guns at a crime scene.”

    You make the second flawed assumption that the individual who originally purchases a gun will be the same individual who uses it in crime. The ATF has reported that 89% of traced crime guns changed hands at least once before being recovered by law enforcement. Gun trafficking rings in this country are every bit as extensive and complex as drug trafficking rings—with ringleaders, straw purchasers, and gun-runners who move these firearms to outside states with tougher gun laws for re-sale.

    In the words of ATF Special Agent Mark Kraft: “ATF defines firearms trafficking as the illegal diversion of firearms out of lawful commerce and into the hands of criminals, prohibited persons and unsupervised juveniles. Firearms traffickers are motivated by the profit, prestige and power they obtain by supplying guns to criminals and juveniles who cannot legally obtain them. Firearms trafficking is how drug dealers, gang members and violent criminals get the guns they need to commit violent crimes. Firearms trafficking is profitable because of the disparity in firearm laws in different jurisdictions. In cities like Washington, Chicago or New York, local statutes heavily restrict handgun acquisition and possession, but violent crime fuels the demand for easily concealable weapons. The basic law of supply and demand takes effect. For a firearms trafficker who is willing to break the law and exploit the criminal demand for firepower, these are ‘market areas.’ By contrast, ‘source areas’ are places where guns are plentiful and more easily obtained. In a ‘source area’ there are numerous gun shops and less restrictive state and local laws regarding firearms possession and acquisition. Guns purchased in ‘source areas’ can be easily sold on the street in a ‘market area’ for two to three times as much as the trafficker paid for the gun. An easily concealable and inexpensive semiautomatic pistol purchased for $85 in Virginia or North Carolina can be sold for $150 or $200 on the streets of New York City or Washington, DC.” - CSGV