Defining The Problem: Gun Proliferation And Under-The-Radar Circulation In America

In order to solve the epidemic of gun violence in America, we need to analyze the failures of current laws in preventing guns from getting into the wrong hands.
Houston Gun show at the George R. Brown Convention Center (M&R Photography)

Houston Gun show at the George R. Brown Convention Center (M&R Photography)

Part 2 of a Rantt Series on gun violence in America.

The Small Arms Survey, based on 2017 data, estimated that the number of civilian-owned firearms in the United States had risen to some 393 million. More than any other country in the world by far: the country with the next highest number of civilian-owned guns was India—with just 71.1 million. To the rest of the world, it appears that Americans have an insatiable hunger for firearms.

In reality, gun ownership in America is more concentrated than the globally held view of a fully-saturated U.S. gun culture. Only some 42% of American households report having a firearm. According to a 2015 survey by public health researchers at Harvard and Northeastern Universities, a mere 3% of Americans owned approximately half of the firearms in the country.

As far as we know, that is. Recorded, legal transfers of firearms are one way of tracking the numbers. Self-reports from gun owners are another way. But private transfers of firearms may not be recorded or trackable, and unverified self-reports on gun ownership may not be accurate.

Supply: How New Guns Get Here

Gun manufacturers in the U.S. are producing an increasing number of firearms. According to a 2018 report by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the total number of firearms manufactured in America in 2006 was 3,653,324. Pistols and rifles led in production, with 1,021,260 and 1,496,505 produced respectively. Ten years later, in 2016, American manufacturers produced a total of 11,497,441 firearms. Pistols had reached a level of 4,720,075, while rifles had reached a level of 4,239,335.

While some of the guns manufactured in the U.S. are exported to other countries, the most recent ATF data available (from 2015) shows that only 343,456 firearms, out of 9,358,661 manufactured here, were exported. That means only 3.7% were shipped abroad. The rest stayed here.

Theoretically, U.S.-manufactured guns are first sold through federally licensed dealers. Licensees are required to initiate background checks on unlicensed gun buyers. They must maintain records of the acquisition and sale of firearms. They must report the sale of two or more handguns to an unlicensed buyer within any 5 consecutive business days. They must also report the sale of two or more semiautomatic rifles to an unlicensed buyer within any 5 consecutive business days in California, Arizona, New Mexico, or Texas, as part of a federal effort to prevent gun trafficking to Mexico.

Federally licensed dealers also are required to permit one annual ATF inspection. Dealers are not required to operate out of commercial premises. The most recent ATF data (from 1998) showed that 56% of dealers conducted their business out of their homes. Another 19% operated from businesses not usually associated with the sale of guns. Only 25% conducted business in gun, sporting goods, or hardware shops. Dealers are also allowed to temporarily conduct business at a gun show within the state in which the dealer is located.

Dealers are not required to perform background checks on their employees. They are not required to install security systems, or store firearms in a secure manner when closed for business. They are not required to perform an annual reconciliation of their inventory and report any discrepancies in stock.

The ATF is drastically limited in its ability to enforce federal dealer requirements or identify dealers who are regularly bypassing regulations. The ATF was established as a separate agency in 1972 and started with 3,829 employees, including 826 industry operations investigators and 1,622 special agents. By 2018, it had not grown significantly in the 46 years since its founding. In 2018, the ATF had 5,101 employees, but they included only 842 industry operations investigators and only 2,630 special agents.

In practice, the ATF is unable to perform annual inspections of more than a small percentage of federal firearm licensees. In 2017, the ATF conducted 11,009 inspections, just 8.2% of the 134,738 federally licensed dealers on record that year. In light of the absence of significant enforcement of federal firearm license requirements, the ATF’s assertion that dealers “who willfully violate the laws and regulations preventing ATF from accomplishing its mission to protect the public are few” is remarkable. How does the ATF know?

The ATF also is subject to restrictive funding provisions—like the one that leaves the agency tracing guns using paper records in a warehouse rather than an electronic database. Not only is there no ATF-maintained database of gun transactions, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) Section of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is required to destroy all identifying information related to approved gun transfers by the next operational day after federal background checks are processed—to prevent NICS from being used to establish a federal firearm registry.

Gun purchasers can leave the dealer’s shop feeling secure that the federal government has no efficient way of tracing the guns they just acquired. State attempts to fill the gaps are limited in effectiveness because any regulations become inapplicable at state lines. And because it would likely be a significant violation of federal powers for a state to establish checkpoints at its boundaries, no one can really stop guns from states without regulations from traveling into a state that does regulate.

Americans also purchase imported firearms, facilitated by federally licensed dealers who acquire the necessary import permits from ATF. Legal imports are limited to sporting firearms or surplus military firearms that qualify as curios or relics. The ATF will not permit the importation of semiautomatic rifles that have one or more military features, including the ability to use a detachable magazine with a capacity over 10 rounds.

According to Small Arms Analytics, between 2012 and 2017, the top five countries exporting long guns to the U.S.—Canada, Turkey, Brazil, Italy, and China—cumulatively provided 7,027,599 long guns to both law enforcement and civilian markets. The top five countries exporting handguns to the U.S.—Austria, Brazil, Croatia, Germany, and Italy—provided 14,735,577 handguns to American law enforcement and civilian markets during that period. While those numbers have not been divided between the two markets served, the civilian market is likely to account for a large proportion of acquisitions. Foreign-based gun manufacturers including Glock, Taurus, and Sig Sauer have established manufacturing facilities inside the U.S. to take advantage of the wealthiest and busiest civilian firearm market on the planet.

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How Do Guns Circulate Within the U.S.?

While the first sale of a gun in the U.S. should happen through a federally licensed dealer, what happens to the gun after that is more or less anyone’s guess. While private sellers are prohibited from selling to individuals they know or reasonably believe to be disqualified from gun ownership, they are not federally required to maintain records of their firearm transactions or to initiate a background check. In 2017, researchers from Harvard and Northeastern Universities reported that one in five American gun owners who had acquired a gun in the previous two years had not undergone a background check.

Some states have passed legislation extending background check requirements to private sales. The Harvard and Northeastern researchers reported that in states that do not require background checks for private sales, 57% of recent purchasers had acquired their guns from private sellers. In states requiring background checks for private sales, only 26% of recent purchasers had acquired their guns from private sellers.

The accuracy and significance of these numbers are difficult to interpret. Private gun sales mostly occur invisibly. This means that even where there are state regulations applicable to such sales, it is inherently difficult to enforce those regulations.

The so-called gun show “loophole” refers to private firearm sellers who find buyers at gun shows, who can then purchase a gun without a background check. Private sales also can be arranged online. Sellers and buyers find each other through messaging on social media platforms, or through websites dedicated to online gun classified ads. Some of these sites, such as (known as the Craigslist for firearms), have terms of service that place the responsibility of conducting legal transactions on site users. In an online environment free of monitoring, buyers and sellers can arrange for in-person sales conducted off the radar.

Some sellers state in their advertisements that they will only complete sales at a federally licensed dealer, but there is no way to know which sellers actually draw a hard line on that. The New York Police Department conducted an undercover investigation of Armslist and sites like it in 2011, in which investigators posed as potential buyers. The investigators told the sellers they contacted that they could not pass a background check. Sixty-two percent of the sellers contacted were willing to sell a gun to them.

Many of the sellers advertising on sites like Armslist will only accept cash, leaving no paper trail of transactions. While sellers are organized by state, no one is monitoring whether a buyer is from the same state. Realistically, anyone within driving distance can arrange to purchase a particular gun.

A random check of Armslist ads on September 11 revealed an AR-15 for sale for $600 cash “or trade” in Maryland; a few AK-47s for sale in Georgia; and in Vermont, an AR-15 with 100 rounds and two 10-round magazines, available for $450. Site users are not required to register, so identifying information does not have to be provided. It appears that sellers can be messaged simply by clicking on “contact seller” and providing an email address—which might easily be temporary or anonymous.

Untraceable guns also enter the flow of gun transactions in the U.S. through theft, from manufacturers and dealers, and from individual gun owners. Earlier this year, a federal contractor stole gun parts and guns from a disposal facility operated by the ATF. According to the FBI, 1.2 million guns were stolen from individuals during the four years from 2012 to 2015. That number is probably low: gun owners are not federally required to report thefts, and many do not. More recently, shipping companies like UPS have been subject to increasing theft—often by employees, who steal guns before they reach retail dealer addressees, and who may then sell the guns on the street.

Legacy guns, inherited either formally or informally, add to the flow of unregulated and untraceable guns across the nation. Some inherited guns may be illegal to possess under current gun laws. Gun inheritance bypasses any background check requirement.

And then there are “ghost guns.” Ghost guns have no serial numbers. They may be guns made at home from kits. Federal law requires gun receivers—which house the firing mechanism—to be marked with a serial number, and purchasers of receivers must pass background checks. But the gun market has created a workaround for that: online sellers offer “unfinished” or “80 percent” receivers made from metal or polymer. Buyers finish the receiver at home using a drill press or a computerized metal-cutting machine, and then add the receiver to the rest of the gun assembly. Some consumers of DIY gun-building kits are hobbyists, but a rising number intend to create untraceable guns for criminal purposes, from handguns to AR-15s and AK-47s. Ghost guns have become especially popular in California, where gun laws are especially restrictive.

Ghost guns can also be made using 3D printers programmed to produce functional guns from plastic. 3D-printed plastic guns are not only untraceable, they are undetectable by metal detectors. The blueprints necessary to make such guns have been helpfully published online, although making a gun that would not shatter the first time it is fired requires high-grade resin and a 3D printer costing over $5000—pricey for a gun that has a short lifespan. As with all evolving technology, those prices may come down.

American Demand For Guns: Who, Why and Where

The level of demand for guns in the U.S. has been increasing, and that trend seems likely to continue. A 2017 survey by the Pew Research Center concluded that while only 30% of Americans own guns, 36% of non-gun-owners consider it possible that they would own a gun in the future. A significant majority of current gun owners—73%—do not think that they would ever not own a gun.

The most common profile of an American gun owner is that of a white male living in a rural area somewhere other than in the Northeast region of the country. Only 16% of people living in the Northeast reported owning a gun. In the South, 36% reported owning one; in the Midwest, 32%; and in the West, 31%. Only 19% of people living in urban areas reported owning a gun, compared with 46% in rural areas and 28% in suburban areas. Among whites, 36% reported owning a gun, compared with 24% of blacks and 15% of Hispanics.

And yes, there is a partisan division in gun ownership: 44% of Republicans (and independents favoring Republicans) reported owning a gun. Only 20% of Democrats (and independents favoring Democrats) reported owning one. The top reason cited by gun owners for having a firearm is protection (67%). Hunting is a distant second (38%), followed by sport shooting (30%), collecting (13%), and for a job (8%).

But how much protection does owning a firearm really offer? Gun sales often spike after high-profile mass shootings. Stanford University professor of law and medicine David Studdert suggests two major motivations for such responsive increases in gun sales: worry that resulting gun control legislation will make the weapons purchased less available, and more urgent concern for personal safety. Notably, the majority of gun purchases made out of concern for personal safety are handguns.

The relationship between an urgent desire for protection after a high-profile mass shooting, and the purchase of a handgun in response, is more quixotic than pragmatic.A handgun-armed civilian, on hand by happenstance, with the necessary training to take down a mass shooter has yet to happen. Although off-duty Border Patrol agent Jonathan Morales fired at the shooter in the April 2019 Congregation Chabad synagogue incident in Poway, California, the shooter was already fleeing to his car.

White men living in rural areas are more likely to own a gun, but black men in urban areas are more likely to experience gun violence. The majority of gun owners live in contexts in which they are unlikely to ever need to use a gun for self-defense. In fact, multiple studies have found that having a gun is associated with a greater risk of gun violence and homicide. It is theorized that having a gun may change the gun owner’s behavior: they may take greater risks and more easily engage in conflict, or go to places that feel safe because they have a gun with them, but are not safe in reality.

What then – NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre missed in 2012, when he stated that “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” is that we already have good guys with guns called law enforcement officers. Law enforcement officers’ training makes them eminently more effective against armed civilians than most other armed civilians could be. Arguably, one’s best means of self-protection is a cell phone used to dial 9-1-1.

A Harvard Injury Control Research Center study analyzing data between 2007 and 2011 concluded that self-defense gun use is rare, and for every such use, there are six uses of guns for the commission of crimes. The use of guns in self-defense can lead to a better outcome in robbery and burglary incidents, with the intended victims losing property only 39% of the time. Intended victims who did nothing in self-defense lost property 85% of the time. However, victims who defended themselves with a weapon other than a gun only lost property 35% of the time. The effectiveness of a gun for self-defense is highly questionable.

What Does All This Mean?

High-profile mass shootings are only a small part of the gun violence crisis in the U.S. But a look at where some of those shooters got their guns is instructive. Perhaps surprisingly—or perhaps not—many high-profile mass shooters have acquired their guns legally, after passing dealer background checks.

The August 3 El Paso shooter told police that he ordered the AK-47 he used from Romania. It was shipped to a gun dealer near his suburban home outside of Dallas. If true, it means the El Paso shooter passed a background check. The July 28 Gilroy Garlic Festival shooter used an AK-47 – style semiautomatic rifle that he acquired legally from a dealer in Nevada. The shooter at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue in 2018 used an AR-15 rifle and three Glock .357 handguns. He had acquired all of them legally, after passing background checks. The November 2018 Thousand Oaks, California shooter used a .45-caliber Glock semiautomatic handgun that he purchased legally, after passing a background check. The Parkland, Florida shooter used an AR-15 – style rifle he had purchased legally from a dealer in 2017: he also had passed the federally required background check.

The 2017 Las Vegas shooter, who killed 58 and injured almost 500 others, had 23 guns in his hotel room. Twelve of them had been modified with bump stocks, which allow semiautomatic weapons to fire at nearly the same rate as fully automatic guns. (Bump stocks have since been banned.) The Las Vegas shooter had acquired a collection of 47 guns—33 of which were believed to have been purchased over the prior year—apparently legally, from a variety of gun shops in Nevada, Utah, California, and Texas. To do so, he had to have passed background checks.

There are other reasons that background checks are not fail-safe. The 2016 Pulse nightclub shooter used a handgun and an AR-15 – style rifle that he purchased legally from a federally licensed dealer, passing a background check despite having been investigated for connections to terrorist networks. Being a suspected terrorist does not restrict you from gun ownership. The 2015 Mother Emanuel AME Church shooter used a .45-caliber Glock handgun that he obtained through a dealer after an FBI background check missed a prior arrest for possessing a controlled substance that would have prohibited him from acquiring the gun.

The September 4 Odessa, Texas shooter used an AR-15 – style rifle that he had acquired from a private seller in order to avoid a background check. He had been unsuccessful in attempting to buy a gun in 2014 because the background check flagged him for an adjudication of mental illness. It is unclear precisely how the August 4 Dayton, Ohio shooter acquired the AR-15 – style pistol he used. However, a friend purchased and stored for him an upper receiver for the gun, as well as a 100-round drum magazine, and helped the shooter assemble the gun weeks before the shooting.

Troubled? You should be. High-profile mass shooters—and every other shooter—may acquire their weapons legally from licensed dealers under current federal background check requirements. Or, they can bypass federal regulations. They can acquire weapons through straw purchasers with clean backgrounds. They can acquire weapons through private sales—which can provide them with untraceable guns by leaving no trace of the transaction, or by providing a gun for which the traceable chain of custody has already been broken through theft. Shooters can make ghost guns in the comfort of their own homes, or buy one from someone who has. Once a shooter has a gun, there is really nothing stopping him from driving across the country to use it. And because there is no federal registry of firearms, if a shooter wants to accumulate 47 semiautomatic guns, he can do so through federally licensed dealers—and remain unreported to the ATF, as long as he spreads his acquisitions between dealers and over a few weeks.

In America, the rules intended to keep guns away from criminals, but accessible to other civilians, form a layered checkerboard. There are federal and state requirements intended to keep guns out of the wrong hands, but they are difficult to enforce. There are also abundant gaps and loopholes through which an individual who is precisely the wrong person to be allowed to acquire a gun, nevertheless can obtain one.

If someone—anyone—wants to get a gun in the U.S., there is really nothing stopping them.

Read Part 1 Of This Series: A Bird’s Eye View Of Gun Violence In America

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Rantt 101 // Gun Reform / Gun Violence / Policy