Handguns have killed more Americans than any other type of firearm. Two innocent policemen in New York City and a black teenager who pulled a handgun on police in Berkeley, Missouri, not far from Ferguson, are now part of that statistic.
According to the FBI, criminals consistently chose handguns as their preferred weapon more than any other. The Uniform Crime Reporting program cataloged 12,711 murders, classified by weapon, in 2012.
Handguns: 6,343 or 49.9 percent.
Other firearms: 2,470 more (19 percent)
Other: 1,637 (13 percent) (Baseball bats, tire irons, strangling items, etc.)
Cutting instruments: 1,583 (12 percent)
Hands, fists and feet: 678 (5 percent)
In Illinois: handguns killed 84 percent of all murder victims that same year, the highest rate in the nation.
What can be done?
Medical triage teaches us to fix the biggest problem first. “Heal the dangerous wound, manage the other ones.” Accordingly, let’s consider handguns only. Narrowing our focus requires an answer to this primary question: “How do criminals get their handguns?”
We know the first sale of a handgun is fully legal, from the factory to a registered gun dealer, a Federal Firearm Licensee (FFL). From the FFL, how then do legal handguns end up in illegal hands? There are multiple answers. One comes to us from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and has received little to no media attention.
Their fact sheet states: “During compliance inspections conducted in fiscal year 2011, ATF investigators identified nearly 177,500 unaccounted-for firearms, which FFLs could not locate in inventory or account for by sale or other disposition.”
That’s more than enough for each Springfield resident to have an unacounted-for handgun.
After further review, the ATF investigators lowered that number. Their explanation: “By working with industry members, [we] reduced this number to about 18,500 unaccounted-for firearms.” A 90 percent reduction from the initial finding? Who were these “industry members”? Gun manufacturers? Gun lobbies?
I don’t know, but I believe we should.
The next year, similar findings documented 190,342 stolen or lost guns, of which 16,667 involved Federal Firearms Licensees (FFL). That’s 35,167 weapons in two years our licensed dealers could not locate. How can gun dealers, FFLs, “lose” 35,000 weapons without national attention? Imagine pharmacies losing 35,000 vials of morphine, or 35,000 cases of ebola. Losing 35,000 guns is negligence and it should be criminalized.
Do you know anyone who has purchased a gun illegally? I do. A man at work had been a Chicago gang-banger in his youth. I knew him as “Bodie,” his childhood nickname. Curious, I asked how he bought handguns in Chicago. He answered, “If you got the cash, it’s pretty easy.” I asked “How, walk into a store and buy like anyone else?” “No, we’d drive over to Indiana and buy them from a guy there.”
Gang members, “lost” firearms, supply and demand all combine to create a powerful secondary black market for handguns. Was he buying an FFL’s “lost” inventory?
In FY 2011 there were 69,000 gun dealers, but only 13,100 (19 percent) underwent a compliance audit. On average an FFL will be inspected every five years. How many more “lost” guns would have been discovered had every FFL been audited? For comparison, consider the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which inspected 82 percent of registered egg farmers within one year. If we can inspect egg farms why won’t we inspect gun dealers?
Although we cannot stop illegal handguns, we can minimize that chance and insist on responsible licensing of gun dealers. Theft of handguns is preventable. Enforcement dollars and new policies can seal our leaky system. For instance, the failure to account for a firearm should result in the loss of license and its transferability. Prison time and fines should not be taken off the table.
To keep handguns away from hooligans we have to control the supply. Insisting that we hold gun dealers accountable moves us in that direction.
It’s time to quit talking about gun control and time to get control of handguns.
Scott Stahlman of Springfield was an active duty army officer who earned “Expert” in both handgun and rifle marksmanship. He’s hunted pheasant, squirrel, rabbit, duck and deer and supports hunters although he no longer hunts. He was the founder of Return of Illinois. He has been an investment adviser, a support engineer at Microsoft, a small business owner and an employee of Illinois Department of Corrections for nine years. He now works at Central Management Services.