Post Investigation: The Hidden Life of Guns: Chat with the reporters

Oct 27, 2010

Washington Post staff writers David S. Fallis, Sari Horwitz, James V. Grimaldi will be online Wednesday, Oct. 27, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss their series, 'The Hidden Life of Guns,' a year-long investigation documenting the ways guns move through American society, from sales at retail dealers to crimes on city streets.

The Hidden Life of Guns: A Washington Post Investigation

Welcome to the chat. Thanks much for reading the series. Any questions, go right ahead.

What crime can people who buy guns for others be charged with? How often are straw purchasers sentenced and how long is the time in prison or the price of the fine?

Straw buyers can be charged with felonies in federal court and many states have corresponding laws on the books. The crime is that they are lying about who the gun is for when they fill out the 4473 at the gun dealer that sold the gun. That said, one of the main complaints I have heard from law enforcement officers on the street -- and gun dealers alike -- is that the straw buyers are rarely hammered in court.


Anecdotally, I must say this seems to be true. Of the hundreds of federal guntrafficking cases I studied, the nominees or buyers were often given probationary type sentences or very short time behind bars.  In gun trafficking rings, the ring leaders are the ones who usually get the stiffest prison time.  What I heard in some of these cases was that the buyer had no idea what was going to be done w/ the gun they were buying. Prosecutors use the straw buyers as witnesses against the ringleaders.


The other real factor is that to buy a gun they have to pass the background check and have a clean record - thus it is likely their first real felony offense on their record. This becomes a factor in the ability to impose stiff prosecution on a first offender. 


I am wondering the age children begin playing with real guns in the state of Maryland. I am working at a detention facility in the state and am so grateful you have written this article. I would appreciate knowing what , if any, laws are available to threaten the young criminal from using a gun in a crime.

We don't really know what you mean when you say "playing with guns." We are aware that firearms badges and training are available to Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, and the NRA conducts thousands of the firearms safety classes done in the country every year.

I worked for ATF in the Out of Business firearms records. I worked with dedicated employees who were very serious and hardworking. Each gun trace was done thoroughly. Sad to hear that the same hand searching process exists with all the new technology.

Thank you for your government service and your comment.

I know this was not the subject of your current writings, yet I am wondering if you might consider delving into how gun laws are created on and the influence that the National Rifle Association has. The NRA has never, and legally needs not, disclose their funding. Yet, the way they consistently fight any law that might impede the sale of any gun makes it suspicious that they are, if not funded by, defenders of gun manufacturers who oppose any law that would prevent the sale of a single one of their guns. It seems to me, and this is my opinion, that the political dialogue over gun laws would be better served if advocates for hunters were conducted by organizations that respect their needs yet are willing to consider laws that get at illegal guns that are not used for sporting purposes. Have you given any thought to expanding your writings into these legislative battles and the politics and lobbying behind creating these laws?

Thank you for your comment and suggestion.

The fact that the ATF cannot close Realco proves that the NRA and Congress have totally tied their hands. A simple straw man sting like what Bloomberg did is all that would be needed to shut them down. Guy walks into store looks at gun and leaves. 30 seconds later a woman walks in and points at the same gun and wants to buy it. It's pretty obvious when someone knows nothing about firearms tries to buy one.

Thank you for your comment.

This is a good opportunity for us to mention that the National Shooting Sports Foundation has an extensive program to train firearms dealers in spotting straw purchases. It is called "Don't Lie for the Other Guy."

While I agree that inventory checks are good, by comparing what ATF would require of firearms dealers to other retail inventory checks, your article underestimates the effort that would be required of a dealer to conduct such checks. Every firearm a dealer receives is required to be logged in. Information as to the manufacturer, model, type, caliber, date acquired, from who it was acquired and the serial number is recorded. Therefore if the dealer gets 10 glocks in a shipment each one is entered as a unique entry, even if they are all the same model and caliber...they have a different serial number. When sold the entry for firearm sold is updated to include the date sold and the name and address of who it was sold to. An inventory check of firearms would require more that just a check of quantity (checking if the dealer has the 10 glocks in stock) that another retail business may do. The firearms dealer would be required to check that the guns with the serial numbers entered in their records are indeed the ones that may be on the shelf. Imagine if Best Buy, during the course of an inventory check, had to also check the serial number of every TV, stereo, camera, appliance, etc., that it had in stock. That would require more effort than just counting quantities. Did you even ask a firearms dealer how much time such an inventory would take?

Thank you for your comment and question. In an interview, an official with the National Rifle Association Cox, said "an annual physical inventory would provide very little additional benefit and would impose a huge cost on the industry."

Jim Cavanaugh, former ATF agent, said in a Post discussion yesterday that there would be a lot of benefits to having an inventory done. Also, the Post's editorial page (which we don't have anything to do with) wrote on this issue today as well.

Is the NRA, in their lobbying efforts, responsible for the inability of the ATF to effectively do its job?

It depends on whom you ask. Many of the current and former ATF agents we spoke with think that the NRA and the gun lobby have hamstrung the agency by imposing lots of restrictions on the agency. We found 87 lines of direction in the appropriations legislation for the ATF, and many if not most of those were added at the urging of the gun lobby.

Of the dealer that were mentioned in the article, what percentage did the crime guns from these dealers represent of the total number of guns sold over the same period? What percentage of the crime guns changed hands after the gun was sold by the dealer and before they were used in a crime?

Hi there,


Of the few dozen or 40 dealers that had the most traces reported to state officials, they sold over that same time frame (1/1/98 forward) about 30 percent of the guns. Or in other words, they supplied about 60 percent of the traces that were reported to Virginia State Police and recorded in their records, but sold 30 percent of weapons over that time. We calculated sales using archived paper annual reports generated by Virginia State Police. The state police conduct all the background checks in Virginia, so they keep track of how many transfers a dealer has every year.


As far as changing hands, that unfortunately was very hard to determine. In many cases, we chased down paper records on individual crimes to look for clues as to how the gun moved once it left the counter and by the time it was seized by police. In most cases, it's not apparent.  Prior ATF research has found that that about 90 percent of the guns traced have been taken from someone other than the person who was listed as the buyer of record. This is why time to crime is important, because the shorter that is, the better the chance that diversion was planned at or soon after the purchase, and the better the chance that the trace has meaningful investigative leads.


I knocked on doors, made phone calls and wrote letters to people caught with guns, especially very short time to crime guns asking them this very question. Unfortunately, most didn't care to elaborate on the route the weapons took.

Thank you SO MUCH for your investigative reporting in this series. By holding the gun industry accountable for its unsavory business practices, you have demonstrated a courage and willingness that has sadly - and tragically - been absent among our elected officials in Congress. My question is will you be publishing a list of the top 40 crime gun dealers in Virginia? This information would obviously be of great use to policy makers in the state.

Hi there -

The reason we didn't provide a top 40 list or ranking for Virginia, as we explained in the box that ran with the story, is that the Virginia data collected by the state police is not complete. Since Congress made trace data a secret, the state data is best-available window unto the universe of traces in the state.


When we went in and scrubbed and analyzed the data, it became very apparent very quickly who the dealers were that were having the greatest number of traces reported to state police. But I also found  that some police agencies were better at reporting traces than others, and at the end of the analysis felt that given the uneveness in reporting  by local police, one dealer could rank higher or lower among the top 40 than another based on the absence of reporting by a local agency.


To helpf fill the gaps as much as possible we requested trace data from local departments (like Norfolk), some of whom complied with our request. The snapshots they gave us  confirmed the broader patterns and dealers with greater number of traces that we saw reflected in the state police data. But, still in the end I felt it was more appropriate to point out the broader point -- that a small number of dealers account for most of the traces -- vs. who ranked where.


That said, all of the dealers we identified in the stories were among the leading 40. If Congress would allow the ATF to disclose the data, we'd have a more comprehensive picture. Unfortunately, the public is left to triangulate  state and local records to get a sense of what is going on.


I should just point out in comparison that the reason we ranked Maryland dealers for the region was that they were identified through different data sources: We had, from the gun recovery logs, a very complete pool of all guns ever seized by Prince George's and DC police over the past 18 years.



One of the main complaints I heard from dealers about guns traced back to them, or “crime guns” as the ATF officially refers to the weapons traced– is that the guns include weapons turned in voluntarily for destruction, safekeeping, found guns, or guns that may not have been physically used to execute a crime. In some cases, this is correct.


But based on the tens of thousands of guns we looked at in the region and the ATF’s own reports the vast majority of guns police recover are taken in the course of investigating suspected criminal activity at some level. The vast majority of these are situations in which the weapon was possessed illegally (such as carrying loaded weapon concealed w/o a permit) or the circumstances of the possession made having the weapon illegal (i.e. possession of cocaine along with a loaded gun).


Here's the ATF's breakdown (from their website) for Virginia for last year for the , most common categories for guns recovered as reported by police:


Possession of weapon – 2160
Firearm under investigation – 1297
Weapon offenses – 568
None provided – 562
Found firearm – 559
Dangerous drugs – 533
Carrying concealed – 429
Suicide – 224
Homicide – 212
Family offense – 178


The ATF by policy does not tell dealers why they are requesting a trace, thus leaving it up to them to guess what might be the reason for the trace.  This also frustrates dealers.  The ATF says they do this to protect the integrity of any potential criminal investigation. This leaves a lot of room for guessing, filled in with anecdotes from customers or dealer’s personal experiences w/ guns they personally know were traced (like maybe a gun stolen from the gun shop).


ATF’s Charles Houser, who heads up the tracing center, had I thought a very good take on “found guns,” like those found in a ditch or storm drain or whatever. These guns have a very high likelihood of having been used criminally, he said, because lawful gun owners don’t typically abandon good weapons. Recovering and tracing the guns may link them at some point in the future to a crime previously committed. The person who had the gun probably did something w/ it they should not have or was prohibited from having one.


The ATF asks agencies requesting traces to categorize the criminal purpose of the trace at the time by a lead, NCIC charge or purpose. Keep in mind that when police seize guns, the situation might involve multiple potential criminal matters, and the officers are typically picking the most apparent reason at that moment.


We also saw cases in which a gun traced for one reported reason might end up being a gun tied to a completely different crime. I saw this with a handgun seized from a drug dealer in Portsmouth in a seach warrant.  But after they conducted forensic testing, they unexpectedly found out the gun was linked to the shooting of a police officer a month or so before.




Robert Marcus, owner of Bob's Gun Shop in Norfolk, Virginia, raised questions about the term "crime guns", basically saying "traced gun" was a more accurate term. Mr. Marcus also implied that Mr. Fallis was slanting the story by not providing the circumstances involving the 88 firearms traced back to his store in 2008. Can you explain the differences between the terms "crime gun" vs "traced gun"? Would you please address his implication as well? Thank you.

Hi there, please see the item I just posted. Hopefully that will clarify what the ATF means by "crime gun" .... thanks!

What was the one thing that most surprised you during your investigation for this series?

There wasn't one particular thing, but we were surprised when ATF agents explained to us the many restrictions there are on how the ATF pursues its mission and enforces federal gun laws.

That 90 percent of illicit guns in Mexico come from U.S. is a false statement. Most of these firearms come from South America and Russia. The fact is that perhaps 80 percent of guns, whose serial numbers have been submitted to the BATF for tracing, come from the U.S. BUT, and this is a big but, BATF can only trace those guns submitted by Mexico for tracing that do come from the U.S. The BATF cannot, for obvious reasons, trace guns that come from other countries. When pushed BATF will acknowledge this. The Mexican government has a vested interest in pushing the idea that their gun problem originates in America. Many fully auto firearms are confiscated by the Mexican governenment, yet this type of weapon can be purchased in America only under strict control and none of these full autos have been traced to us. The true number of guns originating in the U.S. can only be accurately determined if the number of traced guns is compared to the total number confiscated by Mexican authorities. When done in this manner the number of guns from America drops to less than 10 percent. This is an important, critical fact if one really wants to report accurately. I trust that you do.

This is somewhat controversial, but neutral observers and investigators, who have no stake in the gun battles,  say that most of the guns seized in Mexico and submitted for tracing come from the United States. See the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office:

Firearms Trafficking

I know that guns are a very emotional topic for many - on both sides of the discussion, but are they any more dangerous than many other even more common products? Is there as much research into deaths caused by misuse/malpractice due to bicycle, knife, automobile, medical procedure, etc.? Guns are a scapegoat - the real problem lies in the hands that misuse them. Additionally, why are the statistics of gun misuse never balanced against the times guns are used for valid purposes?

Although this is worth exploring, this was not the focus of our investigation. We decided to look at how guns get into the hands of criminals.

Do the laws created to restrict gun ownership in D.C. exacerbate the illicit gun sales?  Like Prohibition, do they create the market they are attempting to stop?

That's a great question and one that I've no idea about.

I can just tell you that based on the firearms examination gun logs in DC, even with the gun ban, police had no shortage of recovered weapons. More than 50,000 are listed in the logs going back to the early 1990s.


In your reporting did you find anyone in Congress who saw the congressional ban on disclosing the gun data when it was getting through Congress?

Yes, sure. As one of our stories said, there were two versions of the amendment that removed the gun data from the public record. One was introduced by Rep. George Nethercutt (R-Wash.), and it codified the ATF's practice of withholding the information for more than a year before releasing it under the Freedom of Information Act. The other was by Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.)


When Tiahrt proposed his amendment, there was a vigorous debate before the House Appropriations Committee. Pro-gun Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) voted against it because the language had just arrived out of nowhere. Several staffers told us that the language came from the National Rifle Association.

We seem to buy more and more and more guns, but the homicide rate in big cities has been steadily decreasing for the past 15 years. I agree that zero guns would mean zero gun homicides, but at what point are we making the good the enemy of the perfect with respect to gun owernship and use?

Thank you for your comment.

Our story takes no position on that and, in fact, we did not write about that debate. What we wrote about is how criminals get guns and the black market for firearms.

Traces do not mean that the gun was used in a crime. Traces can take place if the gun is found and to determine the owner, and other reasons. Of the traces that were performed by the ATF, what percentage was due to the gun being involved in a crime?

That's true, guns can be traced for many reasons, as we have pointed out.  I can tell you that the vast majority of the ones we looked at involved a criminal investigation corresponding to the seizure at some level -- mostly the weapon was possessed illegally or in the company of some other criminal matter. The ATF on their website has snapshots state by state that show the leading categories for gun seizures, where they will list the leading category associated with each weapon seizure

Please look at the stats that I posted from the ATF website above. They were drawn directly from the 2009 snapshot of Virginia, where you can see the numbers the ATF reports for every state in the nation by leading criminal investigatory category.


Obviously there are thousands of gun retailers nationwide--What's the dollar value of the U.S. gun industry?

That  is a good question, and it used to be answered annually by the ATF (and Treasury Department, when ATF was in Treasury; now it is in the Justice Department.) Since the Tiahrt Amendment severely restricted the ATF's ability to release any gun trace information, the report has no longer been published. And our interviews found that the ATF has no plans to publish it anytime soon.

The last report, Commerce in Firearms in the United, was released in 2000.

It said, "The Census of Manufacturers for 1997 from the
Bureau of the Census shows that there were
191 small arms manufacturing companies with
combined total product shipments valued at
about $1.2 billion."

There are about 60,000 firearms dealers in the United States (the number fluctuates daily.)

For those interested, this is taken directly from the May 2009 report by the Congressional Research Service. It has a good overview of the ATF's "crime gun" definition.

"ATF has defined “crime gun” to mean any firearm that is illegally possessed, used in crime, or
suspected to have been used in crime. An abandoned firearm may also be categorized as a crime
gun if it is suspected it was used in a crime or illegally possessed. Under this definition, most,
but not all, traced firearms are “crime guns.”

This section explains how tracing is important to identifying potential trafficking:

"ATF analyzes firearm trace data, multiple handgun sales reports, and firearms-trafficking
investigative data to more effectively target armed violent criminals and gun traffickers for
prosecution. By aggregating these data, ATF analysts are often able to discern regional illegal
firearms trafficking trends and patterns. Working with contract researchers at Northeastern
University, ATF developed indicators of illegal firearms trafficking:

• multiple crime guns traced to an FFL or first retail purchaser;
• short time-to-crime for crime guns traced to an FFL or first retail purchaser;
• incomplete trace results, due to an unresponsive FFL or other causes;
• significant or frequently reported firearms losses or thefts by an FFL;
• frequent multiple sales of handguns by an FFL or multiple purchases of firearms
by a non-licensee, combined with crime gun traces; and
• recovery of firearms with obliterated serial numbers."


I'd like to know what sort of numbers you got of guns that had been stolen from their original owner before being used in crimes and how many of them had been reported stolen?

Great question. Unfortunately not tracked in the Virginia data or the DC data, but in Prince George's the police did note in the exam logs whether the gun had been reported stolen or not.

 Of the more than 27,000 guns the Prince George's police seized over the past 18 years, about 3-4 percent were flagged as stolen (likley entered into NCIC). Another 26-27 percent had no info on this, and about 69 percent had NOT been reported stolen at time of recovery.

One of the big problems for cops is that people do not always report when they have guns stolen. And, in many cases of straw buys, the nominees later report the guns stolen to cover the fact that they turned them over to traffickers or criminals. I saw this in quite a few individual cases I looked at. This creates problems for cops when those guns show up in homicides and they trace them backwards and the person who bought the gun reports after-the-fact that it it was stolen.



In an earlier answer you said "The reason we didn't provide a top 40 list or ranking for Virginia, as we explained in the box that ran with the story, is that the Virginia data collected by the state police is not complete." How complete was the data? Would you say it was 90 percent complete, 80 percent complete, etc?

It's very hard to put a number on what I can't see. The best way for me to explain it was looking at numbers over the years, city by city or agency by agency. Norfolk, for example, gave us one year of trace data compiled by ATF, but they had not reported as a department quite a few years to the Virginia Clearinghouse. On the other hand, Chesapeake appeared to report consistently as did Portsmouth or Roanoke or Henry County, Arlington, etc. In all, close to 200 police agencies are represented in the Virginia Clearinghouse to varying levels.

James V. Grimaldi and Sari Horwitz writes: "Although this is worth exploring, this was not the focus of our investigation. We decided to look at how guns get into the hands of criminals." I do not remember the investigation getting into how guns getting in to the hands of criminals. How the investigation came across to this reader was identifying dealers that had the most guns traced. If the investigation truly was about how guns got into the hands of criminals it would have covered theft, purchases from other than dealers, etc. Perhaps my memory is faulty but what were the ways investigated how criminals get their guns and from whom and what percentage of the traced guns were obtained this way?

Your question exposes a common myth: That most criminals get their guns by stealing them. In fact, every study of gun traces done since 1970s has show that most criminals do not get their guns by stealing them. Indeed, criminals, such as a drug-dealing gang members, don't want grandpa's old handgun. They want a "new in the box" handgun that looks mean and scares their enemies on the street.


One of the first studies done by the ATF was called called Project Identification, or Project I. The study was done before the age of desktop computers. Project I’s report described the process: The ATF attempted to trace 10,617 guns seized by police in 16 cities. About three-quarters of those guns were traced and the information collected was entered into the computer system of the Treasury Department, which ATF was a part of at the time. The data was then printed out and analyzed.

One of Project I's findings was a novel concept at the time: “Six percent of the handguns submitted for tracing were reported stolen,” the study highlights said.

It meant that most guns used in crimes were not stolen, as long had been argued by the NRA and gun-rights advocates. Advocates of gun control had long contended that weapons trafficking from lenient states to gun-control jurisdictions was rampant.


When violent crime surged with the crack epidemic of the 1980s, a career ATF agent named David Carlson was assigned to trace every gun confiscated by Boston Police to see how gang members were getting them.
The process, begun in early 1991, revealed a surprising flow of “new-in-the-box” semiautomatic weapons to a cluster of gang members tied to homicides. About one-third of the guns came from Georgia gun stores. Another third came from Massachusetts gun stores, most used in a crime within 13 months of purchase; the relatively short time is an indicator within ATF that a gun store may be illegally or incompetently allowing guns to get into the hands of criminals.

When you state the number of FFL dealers in the U.S. as being around 60,000 although it fluctuates daily, are you including individuals who have the curio and relic FFL as a dealer or are you only including the commercial dealers? The reason I ask is because those with the curio and relic FFL generally only buy guns to add to their personal collections and aren't involved in the type of commercial selling that would lead to straw purchases. Collectors of antique firearms usually get the curio and relic FFL so that they can have guns shipped directly to them after purchasing them at auctions instead of having to pay a regular FFL dealer to accept the gun and transfer it to them (usually about a $40 fee per gun.)

For the series we really only focused on dealers selling retail, either at a brick-and-mortar shop, gun show or out of their homes, etc.

Thanks very much for all the excellent questions and thoughtful comments. We look forward to hearing from you as we continue to follow The Hidden Life of Guns this year. Feel free to contact us by clicking on our bylines. We read them all. Thanks.

In This Chat
David S. Fallis
David S. Fallis is a staff writer for The Washington Post.
James V. Grimaldi and Sari Horwitz
James V. Grimaldi and Sari Horwitz are staff writers for The Washington Post.
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