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Tracking the source of guns used in local crimes

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 20, 2012  - One winter afternoon in 2010, the lives of Keairrah Johnson, 23, and a companion were snuffed out by gunfire from a passing vehicle in the 4200 block of Dr. Martin Luther King Drive. More than two years later, the murders remain unsolved.

About the only thing police are certain of is that the killer’s weapon most likely originated within Missouri, as did more than two-thirds of the 2,957 firearms recovered and traced last year in the state, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Its data show that 1,929 of those  firearms  were recovered in St. Louis, and 717 in Kansas City.

Not that those weapons were manufactured in Missouri.

Safety in the city

The number of murders and gun-related assaults in St. Louis hasn’t changed much in recent years, but it takes only one incident of shocking violence to trigger elevated public concerns about safety in the city. One such incident was the recent murder of 23-year-old Megan Boken in a relatively safe corner of the Central West End. That incident was one of many reasons for this three-part series, which examines larger public safety issues beyond the shock of a single murder.

The first story focuses on the main sources of guns in Missouri and the state's gun control laws. The second part focuses on the effectiveness of police responses to crime, ranging from the once-popular Weed and Seed program to evidence-based anti-crime remedies now used by many police departments. The final story looks at an example of a community organization’s effort to show ordinary people how they can help ease conflicts, prevent violence, and promote safety in the city.

Last year, 1.7 million handguns were imported into the U.S., almost one-third of them from Austria, followed by Brazil, Germany, Croatia and Italy, according to the ATF. Missouri’s gun dealers can sell such weapons with relative ease because the state requires no background check for every gun bought, beyond the federal felony check. That’s one reason the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence regards Missouri as having “weak gun laws that help feed the illegal gun market.”

While noting that some traced guns in Missouri come from crime scenes, the ATF adds that not all of the weapons had been used in crimes. Even so, some say it helps to know that most of the traced weapons in Missouri are bought inside the state.

That means “Missouri is not a net gun importer,” says Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri - St. Louis. “It helps to know this if one is looking for possible criminal suppliers. It helps to know that our crime guns, by and large, come from Missouri.”

He adds that hundreds of other guns in the state are traced to retail sellers elsewhere, including 151 weapons traced to Kansas, 130 to Chicago, 58 to Texas, 51 to Arkansas.

Legitimate gun buyers in Missouri don’t have much trouble finding sellers. Missouri ranks fourth nationally with nearly 6,000 people having licenses related to gun transactions. Texas ranks first, followed by California and Florida; Illinois ranks seventh. That number includes collectors, but even when those are factored out, Missouri is top in the top 10.

The ATF’s data do not identify gun dealers, most of whom are thought to follow the law. But information about dealers might be useful in helping the public determine which dealers are selling the most weapons in a given neighborhood and whether some gun buyers are straw parties that are reselling weapons to criminals.

Finding straw buyers

An effort to refine the ATF’s gun-trace system is likely to grow as a result of a first-of-a-kind study this year by the University of Chicago. The study is said to help make it easier for Chicago police to identify dealers and determine whether there might be straw buyers re-selling firearms to felons and others who might use them for crimes.

The ATF reports have limitations but they are quite revealing and helpful in debunking some public assumptions, says Rosenfeld, the UMSL criminologist. Among other things, he says the data show that guns aren’t routinely bought and used right away to commit crimes.

“What we cannot assume is that the gun that is purchased in a gun store is immediately used (by the buyer) to commit a crime,” he says. “That clearly isn’t the case.”

However, the ATF data show that 233 of the recovered and traced firearms might have been used in crimes within three months after being bought from dealers. Some believe that the shorter the “time-to-crime” period, the higher the likelihood that the transactions involve straw parties making multiple firearm purchases as fronts for illegal buyers.

Rosenfeld says the issues of gun possession, even by criminals, is not as clear-cut as most people would think. He points to studies in which criminals tell researchers that “I need it for protection” when asked why they possessed a firearm.

“Now there are offenders who use a firearm in the commission of a crime, a street robbery, for example. But when offenders tell researchers that they possess a firearm for protection, I don’t think they are necessarily telling a lie.”

He says the protection argument is plausible because life on the street is highly risky for offenders because they have a higher probability than most people of being victims of gun violence themselves. “They perceive that possessing a firearm has some protective value, not unlike the ordinary citizen who possesses a firearm for protection against people who would do him or her harm.”

Secondary market

But Rosenfeld stresses that there is still a great need to keep firearms out of the hands of people who will use them irresponsibly. One approach Missouri should consider, he says, would be a system that tracks guns in the secondary market in the same way that motor vehicles are now tracked.

“We know where that vehicle (has been) since its initial purchase. We license the driver. We know how many times the vehicle has been transferred from one owner to another. But we don’t know that in the case of firearms. That’s a major loss of information that could be helpful for law enforcement.”

He believes these additional procedures to keep track of firearms wouldn’t violate constitutional rights of people who own and use guns for legitimate activities, such as for hunting and sports.

He adds that gun violence needs to be regarded not only as a police problem but a public health issue. He likens police limitations in addressing crime to the inability of a doctor’s work to control diabetes.

“Your physician can help you deal with it, but lots of things contribute to diabetes, such as lifestyle and eating habits that the physician doesn’t have control over. My focus as a researcher is on what police can do to reduce crime, and police clearly can make a big contribution,” he says.

“But conditions that breed enduring levels of serious crime go beyond what police officers are able to control – including poverty, high levels of chronic unemployment, family dysfunctions and educational deficits.”

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.