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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Squeezing out the bad guys

How ATF and local police have dramatically turned the tide in the battle against crime guns

By Erik Larson

August 2, 1999
Web posted at: 11:46 a.m. EDT (1546 GMT)

TIME magazine

Once I was a gun guy. Or at least I tried to be. In 1992 and 1993, while researching a book on the forces that propelled guns into the hands of killers, I immersed myself in America's gun culture. I learned to shoot, haunted gun shows and went so far as to get myself a gun dealer's license just to see how easily such licenses could be obtained. The deeper I ventured into the culture, the more it seemed to me that the nation had bent over backward to ensure a brisk flow of guns to felons, wife killers and assorted other lunatics.

Things have changed mightily, although there are still inexplicable gaps in federal regulation. The law, for example, allows gun owners to sell firearms from their personal collection without subjecting the buyer to the kind of criminal background check that a licensed dealer would have to invoke if selling exactly the same gun. This loophole has turned flea markets and gun shows--and the Internet--into Quick Marts for anyone needing an untraceable handgun. Guns remain exempt from consumer-product safety regulations, although those rules apply to toy guns. And penalties for crooked dealers still fail to recognize the societal costs of illegal gun sales. Says David M. Kennedy, a Harvard expert on gun commerce: "You can get more time for selling crack on a street corner than for putting thousands of guns on the street."

Over the past few years, however, as the public backlash against guns has grown louder and louder, police, federal agents and social scientists have together waged a quiet war against gun crime that has been dramatically successful, albeit in ways that tend to be obscured by such atrocities as last week's shootings in Atlanta. It has been a subtle, deeply nuanced campaign involving tactics as simple as knocking down walls--literally--in field offices of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Nonetheless, it has caused a tectonic change in how police around the country view gun crime. Now police routinely ask a basic question that, contrary to popular belief, they used to ask only rarely: Where did the bad guys get their guns?


--In 1994 America had 198,848 licensed gun dealers. Most were so-called kitchen-table dealers operating out of their homes with virtually no ATF oversight. By the end of last year, the number of licensed gun dealers had fallen to 74,220.

--The sudden decline in the number of dealers contributed to an equally dramatic decline in handgun production. That's significant because street cops and criminologists have long suspected that more guns on the street lead inevitably to more shootings. Between 1993 and 1997, production of pistols, the style of gun most preferred by youthful killers, fell more than 50%, from 2.3 million a year to just over 1 million. The steepest drops occurred in California's notorious "Ring of Fire," a handful of companies that make cheap Saturday night specials.

--Last November the Brady law's "permanent" provisions kicked in, requiring dealers to run the identity of every buyer through the FBI's National Instant Check System or a comparable state system. As of July 14, the FBI's system alone had denied 50,416 attempted purchases.

--In a concerted effort to track the flow of guns, ATF and police in America's largest cities launched a campaign to trace every crime gun the police recovered, part of ATF's Youth Crime Gun Interdiction Initiative, nicknamed Yogi. The number of guns followed through the bureau's national tracing center increased more than 400%, to 197,537 last year, from 37,181 in 1990. Yogi fractured long-held myths and gave police a much clearer picture of how guns really migrate--so much clearer that at least 20 cities and counties felt empowered to file tobacco-style liability lawsuits targeting the firearms industry. Until lately, says Harvard's Kennedy, "we were blind men groping around in the dark."

Fundamental to these changes was a revolution in the way law-enforcement agencies saw the nation's gun crisis, a revolution born within ATF, the agency gun owners have always loved to hate.

In the early 1990s police typically asked ATF to trace guns only in specific cases, often homicides. Popular wisdom held that most crime guns were stolen guns and therefore untraceable. Within ATF, however, a core group of special agents began an effort to encourage police in cities with soaring homicide rates to trace guns more frequently. Despite the sporadic tracing, ATF by the early '90s had accumulated a rich database, though it had the computers and savvy to conduct only the most basic kinds of analysis. In September 1994, the bureau offered researchers at Northeastern University access to its tracing data to see how computers could be used to identify sources of crime guns nationwide. The study came up with a surprising finding: a tiny percentage of dealers--one-half of 1%--accounted for 50% of all guns traced.

In 1995 Kennedy tapped the bureau's records as part of the Boston Gun Project, an experiment to reduce the number of homicides among the city's youth. He analyzed traces of guns recovered in Boston, which a few years earlier had become one of the few cities in the nation to request ATF to trace every single gun recovered by police. "The results were just astonishing," Kennedy says. He recalls the first meeting when he presented his findings. "I don't think I had ever seen anyone's jaw really drop before," he said.

His study showed, first, that about a third of Boston's crime guns came from federally licensed gun dealers based in Massachusetts. He and his colleagues calculated the time that elapsed between the date a gun was acquired from a dealer and the date it was recovered by police, a measure known as "time-to-crime." Agents had told Kennedy that the faster a gun completed the journey from dealer to crime scene, the more likely it was sold by a trafficker or corrupt dealer. Kennedy's team discovered that about a quarter of the traced guns had a time-to-crime of less than two years, indicating that guns used by Boston's young killers tended to be new guns. This finding dovetailed with what project members had learned in conversations with gang members. They wanted guns, especially semiautomatic pistols, that were "literally still in the shrink wrap," Kennedy says.

When Kennedy's team members sharpened the focus to individual brands, they found that guns traced to one company--Lorcin Engineering, a member of the Ring of Fire--had a short time-to-crime in 90% of traces.

These were important discoveries. A hopelessness about gun crime had risen, based partly on the belief that most crime guns were stolen, partly on estimates that so many millions of guns were already in the hands of Americans that nothing could stanch their flow to criminals. But the discovery that crime guns were new guns and that many came from in-state dealers suggested that the migration of guns to criminals could be interrupted. And the tracing data produced a road map for how to do it.

Kennedy's computer named names. The data showed, for example, that guns bought by a single customer sometimes turned up in the hands of rival gangs, suggesting that the customer had been a "straw purchaser" who bought guns for resale to felons, kids and others forbidden by law to acquire them directly. The analysis produced the names of licensed dealers to whom an inordinate number of weapons had been traced. "Once you had all the data in one place, this stuff just fell right out," Kennedy says. "It couldn't have been more obvious."

Meanwhile, passage of the Brady law radically changed the rules governing firearms commerce. Previously, anyone purchasing a gun from a licensed dealer had only to fill out ATF Form 4473, which asked a customer a series of questions, including whether he had been convicted of a felony. If he answered yes, he could not buy the gun. If no, the dealer could sell it with a clear conscience, even if the buyer was twitching from a methamphetamine rush. No one bothered to check the answers. The approach was absurd: the nation was asking felons to confess their ineligibility just at the point of purchase. The Brady law required for the first time that someone check the truthfulness of a customer's answers. In the process, police and dealers discovered that many gun-shop customers were convicted felons--which proved that over the years, crooks had come to see licensed dealers as an easy source of guns.

Brady drew intense fire from America's Second Amendment fundamentalists. Meanwhile, in the background, a set of quieter regulations kicked in that further transformed the marketplace.

When I applied for a gun dealer's license in 1992, all I had to do was fill out a questionnaire and pay a $30 fee. Tens of thousands of Americans did likewise--until 1993, when President Clinton directed ATF to toughen the application process, noting that a driver's license was a lot harder to acquire. In December 1993 the bureau promptly issued new rules that required applicants to submit fingerprints and photographs, and Congress passed legislation boosting the three-year licensing fee to $200. In 1994 additional legislation required, for the first time, that gun dealers had to operate in compliance with municipal and state laws, including zoning ordinances. It also required would-be dealers to notify local police of their intent to open a gun store and to cooperate with ATF investigators seeking to trace firearms. Incredibly, such cooperation had been largely voluntary.

In Boston, New York and other cities throughout the nation, pairs of ATF agents and local cops set out to visit every local dealer listed in bureau files to inform them of their new obligations. The great majority of license holders turned out to be the kitchen-table variety. Most seemed to be hobbyists who merely used their licenses to buy guns at wholesale prices. But across the nation, police and ATF, prodded by the press, discovered kitchen-table dealers who had become conduits to the bad guys, in some cases selling thousands of firearms.

In Boston as in other cities, the joint ATF-police teams took a low-key approach. They asked a few questions and explained the new laws. They did not openly threaten dealers with investigation or prosecution, but the message was there. Of the city's 99 dealers, 82 voluntarily turned over their license or did not renew their application. "I think that tells you that bottom line, maybe they weren't complying," says Paul Evans, Boston's police commissioner. "They couldn't withstand the scrutiny, so they're out of business."

Nationwide, equally dramatic declines occurred. In 1993 Berkeley, Calif., had 34 licensed dealers; in 1996 it had two. Across the Bay, San Francisco knocked its population of dealers from 155 down to 10. Three-quarters of New York City's dealers gave up their licenses; so did 80% of Detroit's.

What effect this had on gun sales is unclear, but there is tantalizing evidence that the disappearance of these dealers contributed to a sharp reduction in handgun sales across America, particularly the cheap handguns sold by Lorcin and its peers in the Ring of Fire.

By law, manufacturers can sell guns only to licensed distributors, and they can sell them only to licensed dealers. Dealers, therefore, are the manufacturers' most important customers. Nationwide, 125,000 of those customers disappeared. Some dealers--like me--never bought or sold a single gun. Most of them probably sold only a few guns each year. Some sold hundreds, even thousands. The sudden shrinkage surely had an effect on sales and production. Says Andy Molchan, director of the National Association of Federally Licensed Firearms Dealers: "If you have 125,000 dealers who sell just four guns a year, how many guns is that?"

And the figures, though largely unreported by the mainstream press, are surprising. During the period of the sharpest decline in the number of dealers--between 1993 and 1996--overall U.S. pistol production fell nearly 60%, from 2.3 million to just under 1 million. Manufacturers of expensive, well-crafted guns reported only moderate decreases in production. Smith & Wesson, for example, actually saw its production of pistols rise more than 40% between 1993 and 1994, before its sales too began falling. Lorcin, by contrast, reported an immediate decline. In 1993 it produced 341,243 cheap pistols and became for that year the leading pistol producer in the U.S. In 1996 it manufactured only 87,497, a 74% reduction. Davis Industries, another maker of cheap pistols, experienced an equally precipitous fall.

No one can say whether the decline in dealers and handgun production had an effect on gunshot crime in America. During the same period, however--1993 through 1996--the nationwide total of violent crimes committed with firearms fell 20%, the total of handgun homicides 23%. And both rates have continued falling. In 1997, for the first time, the nation's homicide rate fell below that of 1968, the year that marked the initiation of America's three-decade dance with murder.

Other forces contributed. The nation's biggest cities, armed with new tracing data and new confidence that the flow of crime guns could be halted, launched campaigns to get guns off their streets. The Boston Gun Project quickly proved one of the most successful and became a source of hope for cities around the country.

With its initial studies completed, the project got under way in May 1996. Guided by tracing data, Boston police and ATF attacked the illegal-firearms market. "We were able to shut down about five different traffickers right off the bat," says Jeff Roehm, an ATF official who at the time ran the bureau's Boston field office.

The bulk of the project was devoted to interrupting a street dynamic in which a relatively small core of young, violent gang members had produced a climate of fear that drove gun acquisition. A team of police officers, prosecutors, federal agents and others began meeting with gang members, putting them on notice that henceforth violence by any single member would bring down a concentrated local, state and federal assault on the entire gang. That month, Boston's youth homicide rate began to plummet. The average monthly rate from May through November 1996 was 70% lower than the monthly average before the project began. From June 1996 through June last year, the city had seven months when not a single youth homicide occurred.

But the Boston Gun Project had a more far-reaching effect.

In 1995, as the research phase of the project was just starting, ATF was in the early stages of a post-Waco reorganization under a new director, John Magaw, who set trafficking as the bureau's primary strategic target. At about this time, Harvard's Kennedy and a Treasury Department official, Susan Ginsburg, began an extended conversation that prompted Ginsburg to lobby within Treasury, ATF's parent, for a national program of comprehensive gun tracing. She and ATF's tracing advocates envisioned tracing every single gun recovered by police in America's largest cities--a vision that resulted in Clinton's July 1996 launch of the Youth Crime Gun Interdiction Initiative--Yogi--which initially set out to trace every gun recovered in 17 major cities including Atlanta, St. Louis and New York.

The studies produced on a national level the same scale of revelation that Boston had experienced. ATF and city police gun units immediately launched investigations of gun purchasers and dealers whose names appeared repeatedly in ATF's fast-growing tracing database. Every new trace ordered by police enriched the database and enhanced the power of the bureau's Project Lead, a computer-aided system for analyzing traces to generate investigative targets. Most dealers were law-abiding businessmen, but invariably ATF agents using Project Lead uncovered licensed dealers peddling high volumes of guns to gangs and other potential crooks. "One dirty federal firearms licensee can put volumes of guns on the street," Kennedy says. "It's just a fire hose."

The Yogi program quickly produced leads. Agents discovered, for example, that dozens of crime guns recovered from kids and gang members in Chicago, St. Louis and Washington had all come through a Cape Girardeau, Mo., man who until February 1996 was a licensed dealer. Investigators soon discovered that he had sold about 1,100 firearms to two buyers, who resold them "off paper" at gun shows. These two fingered a man from Nashville, Tenn., who regularly bought their guns and sold them on the streets of Washington. The Nashville man later admitted selling 110 guns. Thirty were recovered by Washington police investigating a wide array of crimes.

Other cases followed, but the Yogi studies had a broader, more subtle effect. Suddenly police throughout the country began asking how guns reached their towns. Five or 10 years ago, agents say, even a massacre like that at Columbine High last April might not have prompted a trace request, since the suspects and their guns were found at the scene. But ATF and local police made tracing the Columbine guns a top priority. Today even guns recovered during routine investigations are likely to be traced. By the time Benjamin Smith was identified last month as the likely gunman in a series of hate shootings in Illinois and Indiana, ATF had launched an investigation of the allegedly illegal dealer who sold Smith his guns. In fact, agents searched the suspect dealer's apartment the night before Smith allegedly began his spree.

The case provided an example of a subtle change within ATF. Until recently, direct communication between the bureau's inspectors and its law-enforcement agents was rare. Magaw, as part of his reform effort, placed both functions under the command of the law-enforcement agent who ran each field office. He went so far as to direct that in some offices the walls dividing cops and inspectors be removed, and that both groups share the same kitchen. He also refocused the inspection mission. Until the past year or so, inspectors dutifully worked their way down the lists of licensed dealers, examining each in turn. Now their first priority is to inspect dealers who draw the most traces. Interestingly, an ATF pilot study found that even when no further investigation occurred, these targeted audits resulted in a 50% reduction of crime-gun traces to those dealers in the year following the inspection.

Last June an inspector auditing the books of a licensed dealer in Pekin, Ill., noticed that the dealer had sold 65 cheap handguns to a single customer named Donald Fiessinger. The inspector passed the tip to a special agent, who then ran the serial number of each gun through ATF's database. He found that one of the guns sold to Fiessinger had been recovered by Illinois state police from a different possessor during a traffic stop in May 1998. In requesting the formal police report on the incident, the agent talked to a state investigator, who mentioned that he had noticed a recurring newspaper advertisement announcing guns for sale and listing a telephone number. The agent checked with the phone company and found the number belonged to Fiessinger.

ATF launched a formal undercover investigation and on Thursday, July 1, executed a search warrant at Fiessinger's apartment, where agents found 27 guns and rudimentary sales records. Among the names of customers was Benjamin Smith. At the time, the name meant nothing.

The next day, Friday, shortly after 8 p.m., this customer allegedly drove into an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Chicago and began shooting. He wounded six men. Shortly afterward, he allegedly drove to Northbrook, Ill., and shot and killed Ricky Byrdsong, former head basketball coach at Northwestern University, as he walked with two of his children. By the time police cornered Smith, he had allegedly killed two men and wounded eight.

Later Fiessinger told police that Smith had talked about using one of the guns, a .22-cal. pistol, for hunting.

Last year ATF expanded the Yogi tracing studies to 27 cities. In February ATF added 10 more. Each Yogi city found unique patterns, but nearly all discovered the single biggest source of crime guns was the network of licensed dealers operating within their home states. The most important effect was to replace the hopelessness of the late '80s and early '90s with a confidence that the right measures aimed at the right targets could interrupt the flow of guns to the bad guys.

Suddenly the seemingly intractable debate over gun control became a debate over "crime-gun interdiction." The tracing studies had produced a new middle ground--the crime gun--a rhetorical species no one could love. "It really is a sea change," says Kennedy. "People are now asking the right questions. So when Ben Smith went crazy outside Chicago, they wanted to know where his guns came from. Guess what--they came from an illegal trafficker."


Cover Date: August 9, 1999

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