Where guns come from: Examining the role of industry in firearm availability

In the flow of guns from manufacturer to consumer, regulations that prevent illegal gun sales are currently too weak to stem gun violence. Health advocates are looking to an Obama administration to boost regulatory practices. This CHW report looks at the firearm industry’s role in making guns available and accessible.

Conflicts over guns are often framed as disputes between those who support the Second Amendment, interpreted to guarantee individuals the right to own guns, and those who want to take guns away from people who want or need them. In fact, public health advocates often have a more narrow goal: reducing illegal trafficking in guns so that those currently ineligible to own guns have a harder time getting them. In this view, the conflict is not about the constitution but rather about how guns are distributed and regulated.

Unlike every other consumer product on the market except tobacco, firearms are not subject to federal safety regulations. “The manufacturers are left to their own devices to sell, make and market guns,” said gun control advocate and Stop Handgun Violence Co-Founder John Rosenthal.

SHV has been working to reduce gun violence with (among other efforts) a billboard campaign. The 532-foot billboard that flanks the Massachusetts Turnpike hopes to bring public attention to the lack of gun regulations. The billboard’s current message highlights how gun shows provide easy access to unchecked gun sales. Every year there are 5,000 gun shows, and in 35 states, private sellers can set up tables at these shows to sell guns without performing ID and background checks.

This Corporations and Health Watch report focuses on the role of gun manufacturers and dealers in making guns available and accessible. We also examine some of the ways that public health professionals, gun control advocates and community organizations are working to reduce gun violence.

Mary Vriniotis, communications liaison for the Harvard Youth Violence Prevention Center and a researcher on the impact of firearms availability says, “There is a vast secondary market through which prohibited buyers can obtain guns. Efforts to identify corrupt dealers, trace guns recovered in crimes, and implement other means of addressing and stemming the flow of illegal guns could be greatly improved with little to no imposition on law-abiding gun owners and dealers.”

David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center and author of the book, Private Guns, Public Health (2004) examined legal requirements during two periods in a gun’s ‘life span’: manufacture and point of sale. While both manufacturers and dealers are required to be federally licensed, federal licensing alone is insufficient. In the flow of firearms from manufacturer to dealer to the individual buyer, what’s missing is adequate enforcement of existing regulations as well as additional policies that could reduce illegal sales and gun trafficking.

The First Stop in a Gun’s Life span: Unregulated Manufacturers

Firearm manufacturers are required to be federally licensed, but their business practices are largely unregulated. Information on business operations, including ownership, sales and profits are not publicly available because most manufacturing companies are private (Hemenway, 2004). In addition, their product is not subject to the strict safety regulations in place for other consumer products, which are enforced by federally funded agencies like the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration.

While it may seem paradoxical to enforce safety standards on products that are, by design, harmful, Rosenthal (himself a gun owner) says that, “increasing regulation would reduce death and injury to a fraction of what we are at now.”

The US Centers for Disease Control estimates that firearms were responsible for 30,000 deaths and 80,000 injuries in 2005.

Firearm manufacturers also escape marketing regulations. Marketing and advertising decisions are left to the discretion of manufactures and many gun ads focus on features that increase a gun’s lethality. For example, the Five-SeveN Herstal FN, a Belgian-made handgun sold in the US, can fire armor-piercing bullets. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence reports that Herstal FN advertised one variety of the handgun as being able to “perforate 48 layers of Kevlar.” In other words, when loaded with a particular kind of ammunition, the handgun can penetrate body armor worn by police.

Rosenthal said “Gun manufacturers play an enormous role in gun availability,” but under the Bush administration, “manufacturers were let off the hook [when] Congress gave manufacturers immunity.” The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (S.397) prohibits civil lawsuits against manufacturers and sellers of firearms.

Next Stop: Licensed Gun Dealers, Weak Enforcement

Guns are sold in one of two markets: via federally licensed gun dealers (primary market), or private sellers (secondary market). Manufacturers only sell their products directly to federally licensed gun dealers, who in turn sell these guns to consumers—provided they pass a federally required background check. But this theoretical pathway is not always followed.

In 1999, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) released a report that found 57% of guns used in crime can be traced back to 1.2% of gun dealers. If a small proportion of dealers are the sellers of guns used in the majority of guns recovered from crime, then there is a break in the legal procurement of guns.

Lori O’Neill, Executive Director of Citizens for Safety-Ohio said, “Federally licensed dealers are complicit in gun violence because they’re responsible for almost 60% of the guns on the street.”

O’Neill and Citizens for Safety are involved in a community action campaign, Where Did the Gun Come From?, which shines a light on data that can be used to reframe gun violence. She said that it is important to shift public awareness from the Second Amendment issue to a crime and public health issue.

With a clear connection between a very small proportion of federally licensed gun dealers and guns used in crime, why doesn’t the ATF intervene to prevent further sales by these dealers? While structurally in place, gun regulation through ATF intervention is often futile. Laws that would ensure ATF and police efficacy are decidedly weak and do not protect the public.

For example, through licensing requirements, federally licensed dealers are known to ATF officers. If an ATF investigation finds that dealers have been selling guns illegally, they can convict the dealers. However, gun dealers’ business is likely to continue because their stock is not confiscated and they are allowed to hand their license to family members. Furthermore, there are so many dealers and so few ATF inspectors that a typical dealer is only inspected about once every seven years (Hemenway, 2004).

With such shocking numbers, “you’d think Congress would use that [ATF] report and make changes and promote public safety,” John Rosenthal said. He believes the main reason Congress does not intervene with comprehensive federal standards to reduce illegal gun sales is due to gun rights lobbying efforts. “It is both fear and influence of the NRA in Congress,” he said.

The NRA recognizes itself as “a major political force and as America’s foremost defender of Second Amendment rights.” In 2007, NRA spent $1.8 million lobbying for gun rights. As a single issue, gun rights groups rank among the top 5 in lobbyist spending with 2007 totals reaching $3.8 million. By comparison, gun control advocates spent $200,000 on lobby efforts.

In the US, citizens can carry a concealed weapon if they meet their state’s requirements. At a minimum, people are required to be 21 years old and pass a criminal background check. If a licensed gun dealer fails to perform these checks, the ATF can intervene. However, as noted above, investigating and convicting licensed gun dealers often does not prevent the problem from occurring again.

Another way licensed gun dealers contribute to illegal gun sales is by selling guns to ‘straw purchasers,’ people who frequently buy guns legally and then resell the guns to prohibited buyers. O’Neill cites testimony from convicted straw purchasers that describe how easy it is to buy lots of guns and sell them on the street or at gun shows (public events where unregulated gun sales occur).

The Secondary Market: Unfettered Gun Sales

Straw purchasers and gun shows are key mechanisms through which guns originally sold in the primary market (licensed gun dealers) are resold via the secondary market. Straw sales are by definition illegal; the buyer is not the end user. Straw purchasers may engage in ‘gun running’: buying guns in bulk in a state with more permissive gun laws, and reselling them on the streets of states with more restrictive gun laws.

But prohibited buyers need not rely on a straw purchaser to obtain a gun. The 5,000 gun shows hosted annually nationwide are a haven for prohibited buyers, as private (non-licensed) sellers are not required to conduct background checks on prospective buyers. In other words, at gun shows, anyone can sell guns to anyone, with few or no questions asked. Even though preventing illegal gun sales could reduce gun trafficking, there are no regulations in place to prevent people not permitted to buy guns from buying weapons at gun shows. Attempts to close the gun show loophole or enact other regulation of the secondary market at the state level are also met with resistance from gun rights lobbyists.

Responding to Gun Violence with Recommended Regulations and Action

In July of this year, the Supreme Court ruled on a Second Amendment case, striking down firearms control regulations in DC. The ruling addressed the scope of the Second Amendment by examining the “rights of individuals who are not affiliated with any state-regulated militia, but who wish to keep handguns and other firearms for private use in their homes.”

In a 5-4 vote on the District of Columbia v. Heller (554 U.S., 2008), the  Justices decided  that Second Amendment rights extend to individuals living in communities with gun bans, such as Washington, D.C. Other cities that passed strict gun laws over the past 30 years in order to protect the public from violence and injury, now face the possibility of having to repeal those laws. In light of this decision, advocates will increasingly look to firearm regulation—not the constitution—to protect public health.

Vriniotis said one-gun-per-month laws, designed to curb gun-running and only implemented in three states, are an example of legislation that can reduce gun trafficking. She said that before Virginia enacted a one-gun-per-month law, many of the guns recovered in Boston came from that state. Now, many of the guns recovered are instead traced to states without this law. “This shows one-gun-per-month laws have an effect on criminal behavior and, if federally adopted, could dramatically reduce the availability of guns to prohibited buyers by impeding the trafficking of guns inside and across state lines,” Vriniotis said.

In an effort to curb gun violence, public health advocates will be looking to President-elect Obama and the new Congress to repeal firearm manufacture immunity. Repeal of this immunity, set out in the Tiahrt Amendment, will restore the public’s ability to hold manufacturers accountable for gun violence.

“Gun manufacturers play an enormous role in the availability of guns,” Rosenthal said, so repealing Tiahrt “is a good place to start.” He also recommends states follow Massachusetts’ lead by imposing consumer safety protection requirements on gun manufacturers.

The Citizens for Safety group uses a community organizing approach to educate people about where guns come from. This past summer, the group started workshops, called Traffic Jam, in six Boston neighborhoods. The curriculum was developed by Citizens for Safety with cooperation from the Boston Police Department and the ATF.

O’Neill said community response has been “unbelievable.” At the workshops, community members construct solutions to illegal gun sales. One program seeks to have multiple stakeholders at the table, including gun dealers, community members and law enforcement. O’Neill said Citizens for Safety is trying to duplicate the successful partnership created this year between the Mayors Against Illegal Guns Coalition and Wal-Mart, the nation’s number one gun seller.

Erica Sullivan is a graduate student in urban public health at Hunter College, City University of New York.