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With Weaker Laws, More Guns Are Being Trafficked to Criminals

An assortment of handguns.
An assortment of handguns. (Image credit: Creative Commons | Joshuashearn)

Several years ago, Congress passed a series of laws called the "Tiahrt amendments" to protect gun retailers from legal reprecussions if the weapons they sold were later used to commit crimes. A new study suggests that the laws have had an unintended consequence: With less government oversight, one major gun dealer has sold three times as many guns that were later used in a crime.

In a case study, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research tracked the number of guns used in crimes that were purchased from Badger Guns & Ammo, a Milwaukee-area gun shop notorious for its frequent transactions with criminals. They found that the number jumped by 203 percent after Congress adopted the Tiahrt amendments, a set of measures named for their sponsor, former U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.), that reduced the pressure on retailers to keep guns out of criminals' hands.

"Our findings suggest that changes to federal gun policy prompted a dramatic increase in the flow of guns to criminals from a gun dealer whose practices have frequently been of concern to law enforcement and public safety advocates," said lead author Daniel Webster, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.

According to the researchers, the loosening of standards at Badger Guns & Ammo could signify a national trend — at least, among gun retailers that already have a track record of diverting too many guns to criminals. [Private Gun Ownership on the Rise]

The first of the amendments, passed in 2003, prohibited the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) from releasing data from crime gun traces — information on when and where a gun recovered from a crime was originally purchased. The study found that, before the amendment was passed, concern about public access to crime gun trace data seemed to have the effect of discouraging retailers from selling guns to likely criminals.

Badger Guns & Ammo, for example, stopped selling cheaply made handguns known as "junk guns" in 1999 when ATF data showed that the company led the nation's gun dealers in sales later linked to crime gun traces. After dumping junk guns, the number of guns sold by Badger and used for crimes within one year of their purchase date subsequently declined by 68 percent (that is, until the company reverted to selling junk guns 14 months later). 

Additional Tiahrt amendments passed in 2004 further restricted crime gun-trace data by limiting access to the information to government officials and prohibiting the use of the data in firearms-dealer license revocations and civil lawsuits. In addition, the legislation prohibited ATF from requiring gun dealers to keep inventories of their firearms for compliance inspections and required the FBI to destroy data from background checks of gun purchasers within 24 hours.

Altogether, these amendments had the effect of lightening the consequences retailers face for selling guns that eventually get diverted to criminals. According to Webster, there are a variety of ways Badger could have lowered their standards in reaction to the changes. "These include making sales to people who obviously present as if they are buying the gun for someone else (straw purchasers), selling guns 'off the books' (not recording the true identity of gun purchasers), inadequate scrutiny of fake IDs, not exercising adequate security and oversight of employees enabling theft of guns. But we can't say whether Badger engaged in any, some, or all of these practices," he told Life's Little Mysteries, a sister site to LiveScience.

While the number of guns Badger sold that were later connected to crime tripled after 2003, the same was not true of other retailers investigated by the researchers. Data they obtained from the Milwaukee Police Department showed that there was no Tiahrt amendment-related spike in the number of guns used in crimes that were sold by other Milwaukee gun shops. [Gun Show Regulations Work, Study Finds]

The new study, published online Jan. 5 in the Journal of Urban Health, follows a recent decision by Congress to make permanent most of the protections of gun sellers that, in prior Tiahrt amendments, had to be re-added to the bill funding the U.S. Department of Justice each fiscal year.

Webster said there's still hope that the amendments could be removed from federal law, however. "Although the last appropriations bill funding the [U.S. Department of Justice] says that it makes what's been known as the Tiahrt amendments permanent, in reality, Congress has the power to rewrite the appropriations bill differently for the next [fiscal year] and to modify or drop these provisions."

Follow Natalie Wolchover on Twitter @nattyover. Follow Life's Little Mysteries on Twitter @llmysteries, then join us on Facebook.

Natalie Wolchover
Natalie Wolchover

Natalie Wolchover was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012 and is currently a senior physics writer and editor for Quanta Magazine. She holds a bachelor's degree in physics from Tufts University and has studied physics at the University of California, Berkeley. Along with the staff of Quanta, Wolchover won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory writing for her work on the building of the James Webb Space Telescope. Her work has also appeared in the The Best American Science and Nature Writing and The Best Writing on Mathematics, Nature, The New Yorker and Popular Science. She was the 2016 winner of the  Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award, an annual prize for young science journalists, as well as the winner of the 2017 Science Communication Award for the American Institute of Physics.