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TIME Misrepresents BATF Firearm Transaction Tracing Data

Thursday, August 1, 2002


TIME magazine long ago admitted that its position on "gun control" is that of an advocate. In 1982, it declared, "The point has now been reached where, in our judgment, the solution is not tighter controls but an outright ban. . . . A nationwide ban on private possession of handguns . . . would be a start--a movement in the direction of common sense and responsible social policy." In 1989, it said, "The time for opinions on the dangers of gun availability is long since gone, replaced by overwhelming evidence that it represents a growing threat to public safety." And over the years, TIME has periodically published articles intended to generate public support for restrictions on guns.

On July 12, 2002, TIME.com, the magazine`s website, ran "America`s Most Wanted Guns: A new ATF study reveals the country`s Top 10 crime guns," an article by Elaine Shannon of the magazine`s Washington Bureau. Shannon`s central claim: that BATF`s firearm transaction traces had identified "The top 10 guns used in crimes in the U.S. in 2000."

The claim was incorrect in two respects. First, the "10 guns" are not the types of guns that were most often used to commit crimes, they were the types of guns that for various reasons were most often traced. The distinction is important, because most guns that are traced have not been used to commit violent crimes, many have not been used to commit any crimes, and most guns that are used to commit crimes are never traced. Second, traces are not representative of anything nationally, let alone criminal gun use. BATF acknowledges that its tracing system is "not designed to provide a representative sample of the United States, or even of large urban jurisdictions." Similarly, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) says, "Firearms selected for tracing do not constitute a random sample and cannot be considered representative of the larger universe of all firearms used by criminals, or of any subset of that universe."

A trace is not a scientific process by which a gun is linked to a crime scene. A "trace" is a procedure in which BATF, in an effort to identify persons involved in repetitive illegal sales of guns, contacts a particular gun`s manufacturer or importer, asks to whom the gun was sold, and repeats the inquiry through the chain of commerce as far as it can. Tracing statistics should not be confused with those that state and local law enforcement agencies compile on the kinds of weapons that have been used to commit crimes.

According to the CRS, "data from the tracing system may not be appropriate for drawing inferences such as which makes or models of firearms are used for illicit purposes." This is because of the reasons noted above and because traces are often disproportionately conducted on guns in which there is a particular political interest. For example, police reports have always shown very little use of "assault weapons" in crime, but those guns were frequently traced during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when they were a hot "gun control" issue. For additional information on how BATF traces have been misrepresented to promote restrictions on guns, visit www.nraila.org/search.asp and type the word "traces."


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Established in 1975, the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) is the "lobbying" arm of the National Rifle Association of America. ILA is responsible for preserving the right of all law-abiding individuals in the legislative, political, and legal arenas, to purchase, possess and use firearms for legitimate purposes as guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.