The co-founder of AOL and longtime resident of the Washington region shares his vision for the future of tech.
Guest Host: Diane Vogel
Every handgun used in a crime has a unique story. It may have been made in Hungary or Brazil, sold at a mom-and-pop store or a pawn shop, and traded or bartered dozens of times. We examine the pathways handguns take from manufacture to use and explore the challenge of addressing “crime guns,” while respecting the rights of law-abiding dealers and owners.
- Lawrence Keane Senior Vice President & General Counsel, National Shooting Sports Foundation
- David Fallis Investigative Reporter, Washington Post
- Cheryl Thompson Investigative Reporter, Washington Post
- Edgar Domenech Special Agent in Charge, Washington Field Division at Department of Justice, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives
MS. DIANE VOGELFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your community with the world. I'm Diane Vogel, sitting in for Kojo. Coming up this hour, there are thousands of licensed gun dealers in the Commonwealth of Virginia who sold close to a million guns over the past 10 years. So what, if anything, can we read from the statistic? Six thousand eight hundred of those handguns turned up at crime scenes and nearly two-thirds, 60 percent or so, can -- of those 6,800 came from just 40 licensed vendors. Again, what can we learn from the statistic?
MS. DIANE VOGELWell, every gun that is used in a crime has a unique story. Where it came from, who first sold it, how it ended up in the hands of a criminal. And each of those stories, when taken together as a whole, paints a fascinating picture of a regional and national underground economy. So where do gun -- the guns used in crimes come from? And why is it so contentious when we try to go about digging through this data to learn something? Joining us to explore this idea is Edgar Domenech. He's a special agent in charge of the Washington Field Division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. Welcome, Edgar.
MR. EDGAR DOMENECHThank you.
VOGELAlso joining us by phone from Newton, Conn. -- Newtown, Conn. is Lawrence Keane. Larry is senior vice president and general counsel of the National Shooting Sports Foundation. Thanks for being here, Larry.
MR. LAWRENCE KEANEPleasure to be with you.
VOGELAnd the other two people in the room with me have been studying this issue for quite a while now. They are both part of an investigative team at The Washington Post who are doing a series -- an ongoing series called "The Life of Guns." And that's Cheryl Thompson and David Fallis. Cheryl, your recent article -- I think your most recent article was about two handguns that were used to kill police officers?
MS. CHERYL THOMPSONYes, part of. Mm-hmm.
VOGELAnd thank you. And David, your most recent one was about tracing the pattern of illegal handguns in D.C., Maryland and Virginia, right?
MR. DAVID FALLISThat's right, yes.
VOGELTerrific. Well, thank you all for being here. This is a conversation that is fascinating, the articles were fascinating, and they raise so many questions that I had never thought about before. And I'm sure many other Washington Post readers felt exactly the same way. So David, let me start with you. The portrait you paint of handguns coming from Virginia, what were the basic numbers and how hard was it to get a hold of the statistics? What did you have to go through to do this job?
FALLISWell, the whole project was sort of conceived in the wake of what Congress did with tracing data back in 2003. Like you said, every gun has a unique story behind it, and crime gun tracing for the ATF is a huge investigative tool, it allows them to basically look where a weapon first entered the chain of commerce. All guns, at some point, start new. They don't, you know -- even used guns, at some point, were sold new by a licensed retailed dealer. And so for the ATF, when the police pick up a gun at a crime scene, the ATF can essentially trace the history of that gun to where it entered the chain of commerce using the serial number. Those can be invaluable for investigative leads and individual cases, but more broadly, they can show and indicate broader patters of trafficking, essentially the diversion from a gun, from a legal use to an illegal use.
FALLISThis data used to be public. Researchers, the ATF, used to publish it. It also -- you know, in the late 1990s, people began suing gun dealers and gun makers using this data, so it became very politicized as well. In 2003, Congress passed a bill, a rider to the ATF congressional budget called the Tiahrt amendment that essentially blocked out this information. So for seven or eight years, nobody could really study it or research it. So for us, that was the...
VOGELOkay. So wait, wait.
VOGELSo let me just go back for one moment, because we will get into this a little bit more understandably. But -- so this -- most of this information was publicly available until a few years ago?
FALLISInto -- and it's been off the table for about 10 years.
FALLISBut 2003, it was formally taken out of the room.
VOGELOkay. Okay. And so how did you get the numbers that you used?
FALLISThe challenge for us was to do exactly that. In Virginia, they had a -- since the early 1990s, they had an unusual database called the criminal firearms clearing house where the state lawmakers back -- about the time of Brady Bill took effect, required the police to report every gun they seized to the state police. That database basically sits there. Nobody looks at it. Nobody does anything with it. It's sort of an unfunded mandate. In D.C., we had to triangulate. We requested the...
VOGELI think if we -- in other words, that's gonna go into how you did in the other two jurisdictions. But I wanna stick with Virginia just for a moment...
FALLISOh, sure, of -- yeah.
VOGEL...so we don't complicate this unnecessarily.
FALLISSo we had that database, right?
VOGELSo you had the database, and what was it that you found once you looked at it?
FALLISOnce we cleaned it up (laugh) we were -- we basically found that exactly what the -- like what the ATF found back in 2000 when they studied this data publicly, that's it's a small number of dealers that sell a disproportionate number of the guns that end up getting seized by police in criminal investigations.
VOGELGreat. Well, thank you David. That's David...
FALLISSorry about that.
VOGELThat's okay. It's a...
FALLISGetting into the weeds.
VOGEL...it's a very in-depth story. Anyone who started to read any of the pieces in the series will see that you guys have really -- I don't how long you've at this, but...
VOGELBecause judging from the look in your faces an enormous...
THOMPSONAnd with the hair.
VOGELSo thank you very much. And I'm sure we'll linked to it on our website. That was David Fallis from The Washington Post. Edgar, I'm curios. The way that you trace something, how do you trace something back? Because every time a gun comes into contact with a crime or may have been come into contact with a crime, I understand law enforcement tries to do what's called trace analysis. How do you go about doing that at the ATF?
DOMENECHWell, ATF is -- we are legislatively mandated by Congress to enforce the federal firearms laws. And one of the unique features of any firearm sale is the fact that any individual who purchases a firearm legally from a federal firearms licensee has to fill out what's called an ATF Form 4473, which is a background questionnaire form. And the individual is identifying himself biographically and given some of the biographical data of the individual, and he has -- here, she has to answer a number of questions to make sure that they are not in fact a prohibited person. That form stays with the -- with what we would call the FFL, which is the Federal Firearms Licensee business.
DOMENECHWhen a crime gun or a firearm is recovered, whether it's in a crime or recovered by the police department, any police department or any entity can initiate a gun trace on that recovered firearm. And what happens is we go through the manufacturer to the wholesaler, and at each of those points, those business entities are maintaining and documenting the life of that firearm. And what happens is that firearm will ultimately end up at a Federal Firearms Licensee business, and that licensee business will in fact in turn sell that firearm. So when that takes place, we can then contact from the manufacturer to the distributor to the FFL, contact the FFL, and the FFL is required by federal law to maintain their records of any transactions on their business premise. So they can in fact go through what's called their acquisition and disposition book, which is a logbook. It's a business.
DOMENECHAnd we can give them the serial number, make, model and description of the firearm.
VOGELTo find them.
DOMENECHAnd they can tell us who was the first person who legally purchased that firearm. That's how we start the trace process on any recovered firearm, whether it's recovered in a crime or just recovered...
VOGELOr just found...
DOMENECH...by -- absolutely. Found by law enforcement or turned in by somebody to law enforcement. That's how we initiate the trace to get a sense of who purchased the firearm and just as importantly when that firearm was purchased.
KEANEWell, if I can just interject and...
VOGELSure. And this is Lawrence Keane, the senior vice president at the -- and general counsel from the National Shooting Sports Foundation. Go ahead, Larry.
KEANEAnd the average age of the firearms that are traced by a -- by law enforcement through ATF primarily and the traces that ATF initiates on its own are on average about 11 years old. And the average age with traces has been getting older over time, meaning that the firearm in question was on average originally sold at retail to a law-abiding citizen after a background check 11 years prior to it being traced. And so these -- most of the guns that are traced are -- turned out to have been sold quite, you know, over a decade ago. So that's an important piece of information for people to understand about tracing.
VOGELSure. And the good news is we've got a full hour, so we'll have plenty of time to get into each of the issues because every time you peel a different part of this onion, you see a whole different side, and I'm sure, as Larry will also explain, there's a lot of onion we don't see because...
KEANEWell, in one -- and you have to think about the onion itself actually. And Congress has required ATF for several years now to include, I think, appropriately called a disclaimer to -- about the information, and that is that the information that is traced is not a random sampling of all crime guns or all guns used in crime. It's just -- it's the firearms that have been selected to be traced for whatever reason, so it's one of the things you can't -- you have to be careful about with trace information is developing or trying to use statistics from...
KEANE...the data because it's not a random sampling...
KEANE...which is -- would be an important issue for, you know, creating valid statistics.
VOGELSure. So we don't want to extrapolate into big-picture stories. Necessarily, each one has its own value to understand, but we can't necessarily make broad sweeping judgments based on it. Let me invite the audience...
KEANEPlease if I could make, I just -- I apologize. Just one last point...
KEANE...on tracing. The other point that ATF always puts into their reports on tracing and is required now by Congress, I believe, as well is the fact that a firearm has been traced, it doesn't mean that anybody in the chain of commerce has done anything wrong or inappropriate...
KEANE...or any wrongdoing, including the retailer, importantly...
VOGELOh, of course.
KEANE...as well as the purchaser.
VOGELOh, of course. This is like...
VOGEL...a provenance for a piece of art. It's just being able to say where it went from this hand to the next. We're just -- when we used the words chain of custody, we might -- people might think criminally, but, no, it's just a provenance of each gun and wasn’t -- I don't think any of us meant to imply that anyone has done wrong doing.
KEANEI was suggesting that you do, unfortunately. One of the reasons it gets politicized as some folks and some groups do use the trace data to advance a political agenda.
KEANEAnd so we see, unfortunately, stories where it suggested and that did not occur in the Post story that we're talking about, but elsewhere, we have seen stories or publications by advocacy groups that would intimate that the dealers were somehow corrupt.
FALLISAnd I would...
KEANEAnd that would be a concern for the industry.
FALLISI would just say, as a reporter diving into this head first last year, I found that very quickly to be the case. It's hugely polarizing. There's a lot of misinformation. For me, a lot of it was just trying to get answered true squad to step in and really define what you can and can't say about the trace data.
VOGELSure. And good news, 40 more minutes to discuss all of this, so we don't we have to get it all in, in 30 seconds.
VOGELI want to invite our audience to join the conversation. You're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," and we're talking about tracing handguns, the kind of local and global perspectives and what we can learn. Have you tried to purchase a handgun legally recently? What was your experience with background checks? Or do you have any questions about where guns may come from, illegal or otherwise? I know -- if you want to participate, please do call us, 1-800-443 -- I'm sorry. 1-800-433-8850. 1-800-433-8850. Or email us at kojo@WAMU.org.
VOGELNow, there was that one famous study that a lot of people remember that said 57 percent of guns used in crime nationwide came from 1 percent of all dealers. That's the kind of statistics that can get polarized and can be used in all kinds of things. We'll hold the culture wars for later. What I'd rather do right now is talk about some of the things that you, Cheryl Thompson, and you, David Fallis, were able to find in your reporting, what we learned through your series and then help that make us understand what we can and can't about the guns and hear back from Edgar and Larry. So, it's my understanding that you paint a picture of two guns, Cheryl, that were used to -- ultimately were -- turned up to be used in crimes against a police officer or two different police officers. Can you tell us what you found and tell us about your reporting?
THOMPSONYes. What we did was I traced two guns in two different crimes to see where they originated and how they sort of made their way around the country and ultimately ended up in the hands of people who use them to kill police officers. One case was in Indiana. The other was in Philadelphia. In the Philadelphia case, that gun started out -- we traced it back to the factory in Brazil and how it sort of made its way to the U.S. through Miami and then through a South Carolina pawnshop. And then someone bought it and then did a straw purchase, which means he, you know, gave it illegally to someone who had no legal right to have it. The person he gave it to was a felon. That person then trafficked it to Philadelphia, and it sort of made its way on the streets of Philadelphia and was used in two, I wanna say, crimes.
THOMPSONThere was -- one was a shootout between two men. No one was killed. But when police arrived at the crime scene, they found the shell casings but no gun. And then a day before, actually it was used to kill the police officer. The shell casings from that gun turned up in yet another crime scene in a different location in Philadelphia. And of course, the following day, it was used to kill Officer Patrick McDonald.
THOMPSONA Philadelphia police officer. This was back September '08.
VOGELAnd that's just one of 511 cases. I understand...
VOGELAnd that's 511 cases either that you researched or 511 cases of police killed by handguns in a year or something.
THOMPSONIt was 511 of -- what I did was I looked at the police officers killed in the U.S. since January of 2000 until September 30th of this year. I had to cut it off at some point.
THOMPSONAnd I came up with -- there were 511. I'm sure I've missed one or two along the way. There were certain people we didn't count, like if they worked at the courthouse or something. But we looked at law enforcement, state and local police officers, sheriffs, deputies and there were 511. And so, we could trace the guns in 341 of the cases.
VOGELTerrific. That's Cheryl Thompson, investigative reporter with The Washington Post. She and her colleague David Fallis, also investigative reporter, are both part of a team that's writing a big series, an ongoing series on the life of guns. Also with us in the studio are Edgar Domenech, a special agent in charge of the Washington Field Division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. And Lawrence Keane joins us by phone. He is the senior vice president and general counsel of the National Shooting Sports Foundation.
VOGELWe're talking about tracing handguns, both kind of on the micro and macro levels, what we can learn. And we will be right back after a short break. We'll go to the telephones. And we'll also, Larry, have you explain. I understand that NSSF, your group, has been working together with the ATF to prevent what Cheryl referenced, which are those straw purchases, those illegal straw purchases. So when we come back from a nice break, you -- that's what we'll be talking about. Again, you can join us on 1-800-433-8850, 1-800-433-8850.
VOGELWelcome back to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Diane Vogel, sitting in for Kojo. We're talking about tracing handguns, both, kind, of on a macro and micro level. Our four guests in the studio are Edgar Domenech, the special agent in charge of the Washington Field Division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Lawrence Keane, the senior vice president and general counsel of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, and two investigative reporters from The Washington Post, Cheryl Thompson and David Fallis, both of whom have been working for quite a long time on an ongoing series of the life of guns. So before we went to that break, Larry, I was -- I prompted that I would ask you this question. What exactly are straw purchases and how -- it’s my understanding that you are working with the ATF to stop these straw purchases, ways in which people are getting a hold of guns illegally.
KEANEWell, the industry, you know, is proud of its long standing cooperative relationship with law enforcement and in particular with ATF, with whom we meet on a regular basis on various issue, regulatory matters. But over 10 years ago, ATF was working on and about to publish a report called -- I believe it was called Following the Gun, in which their work indicated that ATF trafficking investigations frequently involve illegal straw purchasing. And that is where somebody who is a prohibited person pays somebody, typically pays somebody else or has somebody else act as their straw man buyer to go into a firearms retailer and to lie on the 40 -- the form 4473 that Edgar talked before that you must fill out. And there's a question on the form that ask you, are you the actual purchaser of the firearm? And if you're not the actual purchaser of the firearm...
VOGELYou're supposed to fess up there. (laugh)
KEANE...then (unintelligible). You're committing a felony, and it's punishable by up to 10 years in jail and a fine of up to $250,000. So that's what straw -- or if you were...
VOGELSo how are you guys working? It's my understanding...
KEANEWell, so what we do -- what ATF is -- this is an issue -- can we work with industry to come up with a way to try to educate dealers to help prevent this from occurring. And that's what exactly what we did. We developed a program called Don't Lie for the Other Guy, which is a partnership effort between ATF and NSSF, the firearm industry's trade association, which we seek to do two things. One is to -- we provided an educational kit to the retailers, the FFL, to give them the tools to be better able to identify and prevent illegal straw purchases in the first place. And so there's signs for the store, et cetera, and a training video for the employees and the dealer. The second part of the program is a public awareness campaign, where we wanna educate the would-be straw purchaser long before they ever enter a gun store that it's a serious crime to buy a gun for somebody else. You know, if you buy a gun for somebody else, you buy yourself 10 years in jail.
KEANEAnd so we have PSAs and billboards and outdoor media. We've run the program for 10 years. We've spent almost $5 million on it. We've been fortunate enough to receive two $1 million grants from DOJ, but it's been largely funded by industry.
VOGELTerrific. So in other words, this program is one that's being run by the industry and in cooperation in some way with ATF.
KEANEBut it is a full partnership with ATF.
VOGELTerrific. Obviously, there -- we all know there are lots of things that could be done, educational kits to retailers is one thing. Telling other people not to buy for somebody else is another good thing. We also know that many criminals are not gonna pay attention to these things. So let me turn now -- we're now at 12:30. Let me turn right to the phones for a moment and let some of our callers get their questions in before we continue -- before I continue keeping the conversation going. Carl in D.C., you're on the air. Go ahead, Carl.
CARLYes. I have to take strong exception to the idea that the statistics concerning the percentage of straw purchases or gun purchases which have been traced back to a small set of dealer is not valid statistics. You know, it would be interesting to know what percentage of those guns that those dealers sell are actually ending up in traced activities, because they're ending up in traced activities for a reason. They don't trace gun just because they wanna trace them. There's usually a causing factor for that activity.
CARLAnd so I just...
VOGELGood question, Carl. Thanks for asking. I'm gonna start by asking David to address that question, and then Carl -- then Edgar can follow up.
FALLISMaybe I misunderstood but is he taking issue with the fact that a small number of dealers supply -- most of the guns get up traded or is he asking how they get traced?
VOGELI think he was referring to the comment earlier that was made, perhaps, even by Larry that said that we shouldn't extrapolate too much from the tracing process because it’s only a small part of all the guns that are out there.
KEANERight. And yet you cannot -- and ATF says this -- you cannot conclude any wrongdoing simply from the mere fact that a firearm has been traced.
KEANEThere are valid reasons why some dealers have more traces than others. It could -- they could just have a higher sale buyer.
VOGELSure. Well, sure, Larry. That's Larry Keane from -- representing the industry group, the National Shooting Sports Foundation. Go ahead, David.
FALLISBut I think that's -- I mean, Larry is right. I mean, there's lots of different reasons that guns get traced. I can tell you that overall ATF statistics in the data we looked at, most of the time, a weapon is traced overwhelmingly is because if it’s an illegal possession charge of some sort of a thing. It's not because of a homicide. It's because the guy had the gun or the girl had the gun, and they were doing something they shouldn’t have been doing or they didn’t have a permit or whatever.
VOGELSure. They drove through a red light and it was in the car.
FALLISRight, right. Exactly.
FALLISSo Larry is right. You can't tie those seizures to crime rates in different cities. That won't work. But what you can do -- and this is what the ATF uses the data for and some, you know, unfortunately some people have used it for political reasons because now, we can have these discussions -- is that you can look and you can see that it's a small number of dealers who have a lot of guns traced. Why did they have more guns traced than their peers? It’s a lot of different reasons. It varies dealer to dealer. Volume is absolutely one of the factors in some cases. In other cases, it's not. It might be because the dealer is in a poor crime-ridden geographic area. It might be because the dealer sells guns that cost a $115. They don't sell $800 Glocks. It might be because the dealer doesn’t vet people very well.
FALLISWe all know that when we were kids, you’re 18, you go to the 7/11, that's not gonna ask too many questions about why you're buying, you know, the six pack. All, by and large, we're talking about guns that are legal that people passed a background check. But what the NSSF wants and what the ATF wants is they want the dealers to do absolutely more than just a background check. They want them to ask, hey, you know, do you know what kind of ammunition this .45 caliber takes? And if they said, well, you know, no, it’s about this size, that might be a red flag. They want the dealers -- when a guy comes in and starts asking a bunch of question, looking at a gun and then, you know, his girlfriend gets out the credit card and starts filling up the paper work, they want the dealer to kick that person out.
FALLISI talked to tons of dealers in doing this reporting and I found, overwhelmingly, the vast majority of them are conscientious. They, you know, they wanna have a clear conscience. And the good ones will tell you they kick people out of their stores all the time. I had other dealers, on the other hand, that said if they clear the background check, they get the gun. No questions asked.
KEANEAnd the types of things that David was talking about are exactly were -- are on the training video that is part of -- for dealers. That's part of the Don't Lie for the Other Guy program that we do with the ATF.
FALLISI mean NSSF wants these guys to vet people.
VOGELSure. And, Edgar, if you and I know that certainly one of the things they reference is like more expensive the gun, less likely it is to show up before used in a crime or perhaps more -- closer to a big city that you're located, more likely that your gun store will have -- be representative as having been involved in more crimes or something like that, those kinds of statistics. But I'm sure you have more to say.
DOMENECHNo, absolutely. I think David hit and some Larry hit on some very key points. What everybody has to realize and understand is just because a dealer has a large volume of recovered firearms, that does not mean that they have done anything wrong. We have found that 99 percent of the FFLs -- and there's over 111,000 FFLs in the country -- are there to conduct legitimate business for legitimate purposes and wanna do it the right way. And ATF takes in regulating the industry very, very seriously. And we do a comprehensive compliance inspections on a yearly basis by law to ensure that we are focusing in our resources and our energies in the appropriate light.
DOMENECHAnd you have to -- as you've mentioned earlier and as Larry mentioned earlier, you have to peel back the onion. And you have to look at some of these data and you have to ask yourself the question, the fact that you may have a large volume of recoveries doesn't necessarily mean anybody has done anything wrong. And everybody has to take a common sense approach to look at the reasons behind it. And David did a masterful job of highlighting some of the issues, whether it's location, it could be demographics, it can be a number of things, and it requires all of us in law enforcement and in the community to look at the issues and not try to make the statistics fit the -- our answers to the questions.
KEANEEdgar, if I could just...
VOGELOne second. Just a moment, Larry. You're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Diane Vogel, sitting in for Kojo. We're talking about tracing handguns at both of, kind of, local and global level, a micro and macro level. We've got guests from all quarters here. Edgar Domenech is the special agent in charge of the Washington Field Division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Lawrence Keane is joining us by phone from Newton, Ct. He's the senior vice president and general counsel of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, an industry group.
VOGELWe also have in the room two investigative reporters, Cheryl Thompson and David Fallis, investigative reporters from The Washington Post. Maybe you've read some of the articles in their ongoing series called, "The Life of Guns." It's been a fascinating series. I look forward to more of them. I'm gonna turn back to the telephones now, to our audience. And Lad, you're on the air. Lad, go ahead. You're in D.C.
LADYeah. This is Lad. I am calling from the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence in Washington, D.C. I just wanna make a couple of quick points. One is that the disclaimer language that you've referred to in the ATF appropriations bill. I just to want to make it clear that that was not written by law enforcement. That language was actually drafted by the National Rifle Association. I wanna say, too, that if you look at what the ATF has said about trafficking in federally licensed firearm dealers, prior to the Tiahrt Amendment.
LADIn the report that Mr. Keane referred to following the gun, they said and I quote, "Although, federally licensed firearm dealer traffickers were involved in the smallest proportion of the ATF trafficking investigations over a two-and-a half-year period under 10 percent, FFL traffickers were associated with by far the highest mean number of illegally diverted firearms for investigation and the largest total number of illegally diverted firearms. That's compared to other trafficking channels." And in that report, they used the word, corrupt FFLs constantly, repeatedly if you look at it.
VOGELThank you very much, Lad. Could I ask you, Edgar, to just give me a short translation of what he was telling us, or David perhaps, a short translation of what he was telling us?
DOMENECHAll right. I think what he was referencing was some of our previous literature that ATF has published prior to the enactment of the Tiahrt Amendment with some of the statistical analysis that we were doing on crime guns in the late '80s, early '90s, when we're doing the annual reports. And I think that's what he was referencing the language and some of the statistical analysis that we were conducting at that time. And, you know, the language or the use of the corrupt FFLs -- and like in any business, you're gonna have some individuals who are not gonna adhere to the rules and the regulations of the business that they are participating in. And in the Federal Firearms community, that's also true.
DOMENECHYou will have some individuals who will violate their requirement and responsibilities in the way they conduct the firearms business. But I will say that the majority of the FFLs adhere to the rules and regulations and try to conduct themselves in a professional, business-like manner...
DOMENECH...and ATF has a responsibility that we take very seriously to go out -- since we regulate the industry -- to educate them and to make sure that the FFLs understand their role and their responsibility, and that we can answer the questions that they may have so that they do not in fact...
DOMENECH...engage in illegal activity and in any shape or form.
KEANEAnd if I could just interject, nobody -- if there is a corrupt FFL, nobody wants to see them prosecuted more than the industry itself, because those few folks can give a bad black eye to the entire industry. And as Edgar said, the vast majority, vast, vast majority are law abiding...
KEANE…folks typically running small businesses. Many of them employing former law enforcement or have law enforcement officers, moonlighting behind the counter. And what we didn't talk about, and I'm sure Edgar would agree, is that a lot of trafficking investigations that ATF conducts start with a tip that comes from the dealer themselves. The informant says...
VOGELOh, no doubt.
KEANE...hey, this guy was in here. I think he was a little hanky. And that's -- and the dealers themselves are on the frontlines. They are part of the solution. They are not the problem itself.
VOGELThank you. That's Larry Keane, senior vice president and general counsel of the National Shooting Sports Foundation. We've -- talking with him, and Edgar Domenech of ATF, as well as two Washington Post investigative reporters, David Fallis and Cheryl Thompson, about "The Life of Guns." Cheryl, the I-95 corridor has been called the iron pipeline for a while by a lot of people who lived and worked within the gun culture or the law enforcement culture. I understand that many of the crimes that occur in D.C., Baltimore, Philly, Boston, New York, all have ways in which they've traced guns and they often trace them back to states like Virginia that have lax or rules on who buys and so on. What can you tell us about these iron -- the iron pipeline and how we should understand that, how we should understand the relationship between Virginia and those states?
THOMPSONWell, I think David could probably speak to that better than I. But basically the states with the weak gun laws are the ones where the guns are gonna be most prevalent, the south, Georgia and Florida and the Carolinas. A lot of the guns used in at least the homicides of police officers came out of those states. Mm-hmm.
VOGELAnd does the trace data -- the steps by step of this trace data help us understand something about that flow?
FALLISSure. You can see where -- when a gun is recovered, you can -- the ATF will trace it back to the state where it was sold.
THOMPSONYeah. And in the case of the police officers, we gathered almost three dozen trace data reports, which as I think Edgar and David both mentioned earlier, are no longer available publicly because of federal laws. But those trace data reports will show you, you know, where a gun originated and who initially bought it and where it was actually found when ATF traced it. So, and oftentimes, you know, it's not the person who originally bought it. It's just traveled around the country and made its way into the hands of somebody...
KEANEOne of the -- one other thing...
VOGELWell, I think...
KEANE...for the audience to understand is that the -- each state is the primary source state of firearms that are recovered and traced in that state. Meaning, for example, in Virginia, most of the firearms traced coming out of Virginia were originally sold at retail in Virginia, and that's true nationally.
VOGELAnd I think David has something to add.
THOMPSONMm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
FALLISRight, right. The guns generally don't travel very far, which is why -- for the ATF, one of the things that they look at and why the trace data is so telling. As Larry talked about, the fact that guns on average on the streets, you know, 11 years before they're picked up, most guns are never seized in crimes. And so, when the ATF sees clusters of guns traced back to a particular city, where a particular dealer that were recovered with what they call a short time to crime, meaning, you know, less than three years, less than two years, less than one year, you're down to a matter of months, you're talking a very, very, very quick turnaround. That's a huge red flag for potential trafficking. That doesn't mean the dealer is participating in trafficking. He could be unknowingly targeted by traffickers.
FALLISI interviewed traffickers about this very issue and, well, I asked guys that were running guns back up to New York about the laws and that, you know -- and they said that when Virginia passed that law back in the early '90s, that basically limited to one handgun purchase per month, it's -- it made things harder, but all they did was simply recruit more people to go into the stores to buy more guns. It's -- I mean it's a tough issue to get at because obviously you, you know, you -- it's -- passing laws doesn't stop the trafficking.
VOGELYou're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show". I'm WAMU managing producer Diane Vogel sitting in for Kojo. We're talking today about tracing handguns both the local and global perspective. We're gonna take a short break. When we come back, we'll go back to the phones and answer a few more of your questions. This is "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
VOGELWelcome back to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Diane Vogel, managing producer of the show, sitting in for Kojo. I'm talking today with a group of experts, Edgar Domenech from the Washington Field Division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Larry Keane, general counsel to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, and two investigative reporters Cheryl Thompson and David Fallis from The Washington Post, both of whom have been working along and hard on a series called "The Life of Guns." We're talking about tracing handguns that may or may not have been -- that have been involved in crimes both on local and national perspective. We're gonna go back to the phones and go to Paul in Reston, Va. Paul, you're on the air. Paul?
PAULGood afternoon. My question was concerning about tracing handguns and if you make ownership or responsibility as far as securing that gun. I'm curious about what occurs when a gun has been stolen and the owner never reports that it's been stolen...
PAUL...and it's used in the commitment of a crime of some sort. Are there any statistics saying how many of those are crime?
VOGELOkay. I think also the question that Paul would add, I'm gonna add for you, David, is not all -- he was focusing a little on statistics -- do we know -- is there a responsibility if you own a gun and it shows up committed in a crime? What's the connection?
FALLISWell, they're gonna come ask you about it. It's what's gonna -- that's the...
FALLIS...connection because, unfortunately, a lot of times, straw purchasers -- that's their cover story -- is they'll -- I saw this again and again and again when I ran out individual cases in Maryland and D.C. and Virginia, where the cops would pick up a gun at a crime scene. They'd go interview the person because the -- it was a short time-to-crime gun, maybe a month or two. And the person says, oh, I had that stolen out of my car three weeks ago and I forgot to report it...
FALLIS...or vice versa. The traffickers openly told their gun mules, basically, to report the gun stolen. And so that's a problem. I can tell you that my sense -- and this is just anecdotal -- is that most people probably don't report it when guns get stolen. And the reason I say this is because in Prince George's, when I looked at the 27, 25,000 guns that they had recovered over the past 10 to 15 years, they actually make a point, when they log those guns, of checking NCIC, which is the national clearinghouse for stolen property, among other purposes. And the majority of the guns that they had logged had not been entered into NCIC. It was a very small percentage of that. That doesn't mean that there aren't a lot of stolen guns out there. I just think that some people, they don't think about it.
VOGELSure. Well, actually, I -- I'm interested to see Cheryl sort of shaking her head both ways while you're talking, David. Go ahead, Cheryl.
THOMPSONWell, in my case, in the case of the police officers killed...
VOGELYou traced two -- for those who are coming in late to the conversation -- you traced two guns that were used in the killing of two police officers. And you went back to the very beginning and talked to the first people who bought these guns, right?
THOMPSONI did. And I also looked at the 511 cases of the police officers and found that there were 77 stolen guns. And oftentimes, people, the original owners, had reported them stolen. I know, in one case, a woman in North Carolina was approached by two detectives while she was sitting on her front porch and they came up and told them -- told her that the gun she owned had been used to kill two Charlotte police officers. And she had reported it stolen 15 years earlier...
THOMPSON...and it had never turned up in a crime until the killing of the two police officers. So she had reported it stolen.
KEANEWell, there are about 500,000 guns that are stolen every year in the United States. So...
KEANE…you know, that's more guns stolen every year...
FALLISHey, Larry, do you think...
KEANE...than there are crimes committed.
FALLIS...do you think there are more guns stolen than -- that are not reported...
THOMPSONDidn't get reported or...
FALLIS...or reported? I don't have much -- I mean, I'm just guessing.
KEANEYou know, I don't really know. I would imagine that most people would report it...
KEANE...when they were stolen. I know there's been discussion about...
VOGELAnd do you have a feeling, Edgar?
KEANE...requiring folks to report it if it is stolen and criminalizing it if you do not. I think -- and that's been proposed as a means to try to prevent straw purchasing. I think -- and we really haven't taken a position on it very much. But one of the concerns is criminalizing folks who don't report it, quote, "soon enough."
KEANEIt's a language that was problematic, but whether even it would violate the Fifth Amendment to require somebody to report it. The other thing is, you know, criminals -- David interviewed these folks in prison -- you know, they're very adept at changing their practices to avoid whatever the law is. So one gun a month. They just...
KEANE...recruited more folks. In the case of requiring people to report guns that are stolen, you know, I think one issue that has to be thought about is whether or not you -- that somebody is just gonna report them as stolen when they straw purchased them.
FALLISWell, you know, one of the things -- if I can jump in -- I just -- and we talked about this in that meeting the other day, Larry -- was, you know, I think part of the problem is that the straw purchasers themselves, generally, nothing happens to them. I mean...
KEANEIt's a very good point.
FALLISAnd part of this is, it's just a -- it's a legal fact that the reason they're able to buy the gun is because it's probably their first felony offense. So they don't have a prior record. And so what happens is they get the main traffickers. But if they used 30 or 40 people, you know, parading in and out of these gun stores, buying guns, those people usually go straight back out to the streets.
VOGELSure. And they probably, I would imagine, just get a, you know, some -- a cut of money. You know, here's a hundred bucks to go and then register -- and buy a gun for me.
FALLISYeah, they pay them. Right.
DOMENECHWell -- and, Diane, so I can interject here, I think one of the important pieces here to realize is, as it relates to the law enforcement -- that's why it's so critical, as we have this conversation, that we get people to realize the importance of the law enforcement community to trace all firearms, because as you -- as your -- as the guests have spoken about straw purchaser, you can strengthen the prosecution of a group of straw purchasers if you can show that they have, in fact, purchased more than one or two of the crime guns that have been recovered. And the way you do that is by ensuring that you have everybody involved in tracing all of their firearms. And that's critical because that's how you strengthen your criminal prosecution on those firearms traffickers who are using straw purchasers, because if you can get the straw purchasers to understand that they are, in fact, looking at potential federal prosecution and incarceration, then that's going to be a deterrent for those who would be engaged in the process.
VOGELSure. And, Edgar -- thank you. That's a very good point, Edgar. Edgar Domenech is a special agent in charge of the Washington Field Division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives. He's joining us in the studio. Larry Keane is joining us by phone from Newtown, Connecticut. He's the senior vice president and general counsel of the National Shooting Sports Foundation. And Cheryl Thompson and David Fallis, both investigative reporters with The Washington Post, working on the series "The Life of Guns," are also in the studio with us. The -- I wanted to read an e-mail from Bryan. Bryan says, "I think the gun industry is being a bit disingenuous. They don't want this information out because it proves that gun regulations are so lax. If they were really worried about statistics being misleading, isn't the real answer to have more statistics collected and viewed? Skeptics or cynics would argue that the gun industry is just trying to suppress any conversation about illegal guns. It seems like we don't know very much about this problem mainly because they won't let it -- let us study it."
VOGELI will go back and ask that question to Edgar. If you can address Bryan's concern, and if you can tell me a little bit about the actual knots and bolts of how law enforcement should be -- law enforcement's need should be balanced of the public's right to know.
DOMENECHWell, and I would offer up this that any law enforcement agency in the country has the availability of the trace data that ATF has. They can coordinate through their local ATF office and through the National Tracing Center and obtain this information for their investigative purposes. I won't, you know, get into the legislative issues. I am a 25-year public servant, been employed with ATF. And we basically will regulate and enforce the laws that are legislated. But I will say this, crime gun trace information is available to law enforcement entities coordinating it through the National Tracing Center with ATF, and they can get that information for their investigative purposes.
VOGELAnd Edgar, I'll ask you to address Don's question. Don's been holding for awhile. He's from Herndon, Va. Don, you're on the air.
DONHi. Yes, Diane. I was wondering if -- and if any of your guests have any specific cases where individuals have been prosecuted for straw or illegal sales. And if so, what were the results of those cases?
THOMPSONWell, straw purchases...
VOGELI was gonna say Cheryl and David, both wanted to respond.
THOMPSONYeah. In the case, I had 16 straw purchases of people who were accused or convicted of killing police officers.
VOGELSixteen out of...
THOMPSONSixteen straw purchases -- 16 out of the 341 and seven of them were prosecuted, so that means more were not prosecuted than were. But -- and then, it's interesting because some of them got as little as three years, but they also got nine or 10, the max. But what's interesting, too, about straw purchases is -- going back to the Don't Lie for the Other Guy program -- oftentimes, girlfriends and wives will go into these gun stores and there's no way for the dealer to know that the gun is not for this person. And -- but I've also found that, oftentimes, the girlfriends and the wives are not prosecuted for whatever reason. I don't know. It's -- maybe it's because they flipped on the boyfriend or they, you know -- I'm not sure. Maybe Edgar can speak to that.
DOMENECHSure, okay. On that point, ATF -- we take a rather aggressive approach for any firm that's recovered with the time to crime of less than three years. Actually, in the Washington Field Division, what we in fact do here is we will sent out an agent along with one of our deputized officers to go interview the original purchaser of that firearm so that we can have a very comprehensive first-person interview to ascertain whether or not we have a potential straw purchaser.
DOMENECHAnd what that does, that enables us to put together very comprehensive criminal investigations. So that if we can determine that that individual was in fact engaged in straw purchasing, we are solidifying our case because we're able to get incriminating statements that will make the merits of bringing the case forward to the U.S. Attorneys Office that much more reviewable and approvable. So, you know, straw purchasing is a difficult case to prosecute and to investigate, but by taking an aggressive action, which we take by interviewing these folks from the very inception, you can put together a better case for prosecution.
KEANECan I -- if I can just interject as well. The industry -- we are very concerned about the fact that all too often the straw purchaser isn't -- doesn't wind up doing serious jail time. So while the program, the Don't Lie program says...
VOGELWe're within two minutes, David.
KEANE…they're up 10 years, it doesn't happen. So our position is we'd like to see mandatory minimums for illegal straw purchases.
VOGELAll right. Thank you, Larry. David, you may get the last word.
FALLISI would just say that on the straw purchase front, I think that -- if ATF is involved in the case, there's more of a likelihood that it'll get prosecuted. Usually in those cases, it's the lead guy. If it's a local case, you know, and it's a local homicide, that's where you see those straw things fall apart, eat more frequently because they're using the straw buyers to testify against the protagonist.
VOGELAnd while we aren't gonna resolve the issue of law enforcement's work versus the public's need to know, I'm guessing that David and Cheryl would weigh in on the public's need to know. ATF and Larry from the NSSF would -- may come down on the other side. That'll have to be a discussion for another time. (laugh) Thank you all for joining us today.
FALLISThank you too.
VOGELYou've been listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" with guests Edgar Domenech, special agent in charge of the Washington Field Division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, Larry Keane, the senior vice president and general counsel of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, and both Cheryl Thompson and David Fallis, investigative reporters with The Washington Post, who are both working on the ongoing series "The Life of Guns." I'm Diane Vogel, managing producer of "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," sitting in for Kojo. Thank you all for listening. We hope Kojo will be back and feeling better tomorrow. Thanks for joining us. This is WAMU 88.5.
Most Recent Shows
A new Washington Post poll found that 9 in 10 Native Americans aren't offended by the Washington football team's name. We talk about the implications for the team, fans and both the local and Native communities.
D.C.’s self-government moves get slapped down in Congress and court. Montgomery County lawmakers put their money where their mouth is on school spending. And Fairfax County disciplines a fire official over inappropriate social media posts.
Howard University has long been among the nation's best-known historically black universities. We talk with the university's president, Wayne Frederick, about the way forward for the D.C. institution.