High-quality research has not been done to examine if tightening restrictions on gun dealers leads to a reduction in violent crime, raising questions about whether President Biden’s recently announced crime-prevention strategy will work.
Mr. Biden’s plan to combat a rising tide of violent crime includes targeting licensed gun dealers who break laws, creating strike forces to stop firearms trafficking and giving more money to the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the agency that tracks the nation’s guns.
The president said the three-pronged strategy will save lives by targeting “merchants of death,” but he offered no metrics on how much his new policies could reduce gun deaths.
The Rand Corporation, a nonprofit think tank, has analyzed thousands of studies on gun policy research published since 1995. In a report released last year, researchers concluded there was a surprisingly limited base of scientific evidence on the effects of commonly discussed gun policies.
Among the thousands of studies researchers reviewed, 123 studies conducted since 1995 were found to have met high standards for evidence.
The Rand research didn’t find a link between gun dealer misconduct and mass shootings, and it yielded mixed results on the Biden administration’s other proposals to reduce violent crime.
A review of studies on the impact of transferring firearms to a person prohibited on violent crime was also inconclusive.
But Rand did say the studies found that complying with background checks has a moderate impact on violent crime.
Even a 1% reduction in homicides would result in 1,500 fewer deaths over a decade, the report found.
“I want to be clear that moderate or inconclusive evidence doesn’t mean that a [gun] law is not effective. It means the research, in many cases, hasn’t been done,” said Andrew Moral, one of the report’s authors. “In many cases, the research hasn’t been done. This is not a field that has a lot of research, and in many cases, the research is very weak.”
But gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety says its research backs the plan.
Everytown found in a study last year that an estimated 84,389 crime guns were used in a crime within three years of its first retail purchase. The same study also found that 82% of trafficked guns came from states without background check laws.
Derek Cohen, vice president of policy at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, countered that Everytown’s data is skewed because it includes guns legally purchased but later stolen from a house or a car.
“It’s a confirmation bias because crime guns are typically the ones stolen from law-abiding citizens, not the ones legally purchased,” he said, adding that Everytown has a gun control agenda.
Everytown spokesman Andrew Zucker said the data came from the ATF and does not differentiate between stolen and legally purchased guns.
The Washington Times sent multiple emails to Michael Gwin, a spokesman handling the White House crime prevention strategy, asking for the administration’s underlying research. None of the emails was returned.
Outside of scientific studies, Mr. Cohen said anecdotal evidence shows that few dealers are connected to gun crimes.
“You could have a pawnbroker that doesn’t adhere to the rules, but I’ve looked at this space for the last 20 years and if the primary focus of a business is selling guns, just because of the licensing requirements, dealers are crossing every T and dotting every I,” he said.
Betsy Brantner Smith, a spokeswoman for the National Police Association, said the administration is trying to distract from the mayhem in cities by focusing on “process crimes,” which are minor offenses such as falsifying firearms transaction records or failing to run a background check.
“When we look at violent crime, most of the offenders did not go to [a federal firearms license] dealer, fill out all of their paperwork, legally purchase a gun and then go commit a violent crime,” she said. “That’s such a silly, childish notion. That is not how most of the violent offenders are obtaining their weapons right now.”
Still, some gun safety and law enforcement groups applaud the administration’s effort.
“The kind of crime that is having the most adverse impact on inner cities is firearms crime,” said James Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police. “Firearms are a tool of the trade for gangbangers and violent criminals of any stripe.”
Gun violence is the nation’s leading cause of death, but research is often contradictory and mired in charges of bias, bogging down the gun policy debate.
For example, there is no academic agreement on the effect of an assault weapon ban on the number of mass shootings, and no research at all on whether armed school employees would reduce school shootings.
Nearly as many people die from gun violence per year as they do from a sepsis infection, but gun research funding is less than 1% of that for sepsis, according to a 2017 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
In 2019, Congress allocated $25 million to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health to study gun violence.
Ms. Brantner Smith called on law-enforcement groups to conduct their own research.
“We need to show the American people what we are doing, who we are arresting and what is happening to them as they go through the system,” she said. “One thing the American public really needs to know is how our system works. Let’s show them and let’s let law enforcement spearhead this.”
Some remain skeptical that Mr. Biden’s proposals will reduce violent crime.
Mr. Cohen said there will be a reduction in crime in the fall, but it will occur naturally as the colder weather forces people to return indoors.
Ms. Brantner Smith disagreed. She doesn’t expect crime to drop at all and said the administration needs to focus on tougher sentences for criminals.
“A year from now, the data that we are going to see is that going after rogue gun dealers will do nothing because that’s not where this problem comes from,” she said.