We Really, Really Don't Know How Many Lost and Stolen Guns There Are in America
The inspection of one gun dealer in Arkansas turned up thousands of missing or stolen weapons, raising the question of whether the feds know anything at all about how many guns are floating around in the ether.
This article originally appeared in The Trace.
Arkansas just got an unwelcome distinction from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). In 2015, the mid-sized state topped all others as the place where the most guns went missing.
Federally licensed gun dealers (FFLs) in Arkansas reported 2,951 guns lost or stolen last year, according to ATF statistics released on March 5. In a state with 2,000 gun dealers, that makes for an abnormally high total: Texas, a state with five times as many FFLs, reported just 1,024 guns lost or stolen.
Arkansas doesn't owe its distinction to a wave of gun store thefts. Nor did a cloud of carelessness settle over the Ozarks. Rather, the number of missing guns there shot up after ATF agents elected to inspect several of the state's gun stores. A note on the report says, "audits in Arkansas resulted in a higher number of losses from this state." Not just a little higher, either: The previous year, only 317 lost or stolen guns were reported there.
According to ATF spokesman Brian Garner, 98 percent of the missing Arkansas guns stemmed from a single unnamed dealer. Kevin Moran, the spokesman for the regional division that oversees operations in Arkansas, says field agents discovered the guns missing from the store's inventory during an inspection. Neither Garner nor Moran could comment on what prompted the ATF's visit.
Moran did say, however, that ATF agents found missing or incomplete paperwork during the inspection. With that in mind, he says, it's possible the guns were sold in legal transactions that the dealer neglected to record. But however they left the store, since the guns don't appear on a ledger, they must be declared lost.
"It's impossible to say what exactly happened to those thousands of weapons," Moran tells The Trace.
Similar spikes occurred in 2014 when ATF audits of firearms dealers in New York and Texas sent those states' numbers of guns missing from stores soaring (New York reported 4,017 lost or stolen guns that year, and Texas reported 2,510). Ditto in 2013, when internal audits of gunmakers in Kentucky and New York revealed higher than expected numbers of missing firearms from those states.
Licensed gun dealers are required to report lost or stolen guns to law enforcement within 48 hours. But responsibility for enforcing that rule lies with the ATF's compliance department, which only managed to inspect 7 percent of the country's 140,000 FFLs in 2014, the last year for which figures are available. That lack of accountability is compounded by the Tiahrt Amendments, which since 2003 have prohibited the ATF from requiring FFLs to submit inventories to the government.
Former ATF agent Jay Wachtel, who specialized in trafficking and studied the role licensed gun dealers play in supplying the black market, says that FFL inspections are often the result of crime gun traces. If a high number of traces of crime guns point back to a particular seller, then inspectors will follow up. When confronted by inspectors about missing weapons, the dealer has to declare whether the weapons were lost or stolen.
And if a dealer is in fact crooked, "obviously they aren't going to tell the inspector they were illegally selling guns," Wachtel says. "They'll say, 'Oh my god, they must have been stolen!'"
According to the ATF, licensed gun dealers reported 14,800 guns lost or stolen last year. But if Arkansas is an example, the true total remains a mystery.
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