WASHINGTON – Federal agents were able to trace only a fraction of the guns used by Baltimore criminals in 1999 back to a legal sale — evidence, officials said, of a brisk trade in illegal weapons.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms study said that of 3,703 guns seized in Baltimore, authorities could only trace about 40 percent of them to both the criminal who used the weapon and the person who bought it originally.
In only about 10 percent of those cases could agents confirm that the original buyer committed the crime. The other 90 percent could have gotten into criminal hands illegally, the report said.
The study included gun-tracing results from more than 30 cities nationwide, where agents did slightly better than Baltimore, tracking 42 percent of crime weapons back to their roots. As in Baltimore, however, a legal source could only be confirmed nationwide about 10 percent of the time.
Still, ATF Director Bradley Buckles said in the report that the gun- tracing program is “an information cornerstone of our efforts to reduce violent crime, disarm the criminal, and better protect our nation’s youth.”
Baltimore ATF spokesman Mike Campbell agreed and said tracing guns is “another investigative tool” that can help bring gun violence down.
But gun-rights advocates argued that only stiffer enforcement of firearms laws will curb gun violence. Gun-tracing simply confirms that gun-control legislation only affects law-abiding citizens, they said.
“It’s a lot of money and effort when it probably won’t have an effect on crime,” said Kelly Whitley, a spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association. “We can have these ATF studies, but the fact is that they are arresting these criminals and not prosecuting them.”
The report released Thursday is the third one issued by the ATF. The number of cities participating in gun-tracing has grown steadily since the first report in 1996 and ATF officials hope to include as many as 50 cities within the next two years.
“What we are trying to do is encourage every agency to trace firearms,” Campbell said.
Using serial numbers when they were available, the study tried to find out where the guns were coming from, which guns were popular among particular age groups and other detailed information. Among the findings for Baltimore:
— About 12 percent of guns that could be linked to a specific criminal were traced to a minor, above the national average of 9 percent.
— The relatively cheap Hi-Point 9mm pistol, which costs $125 to $140, was popular among criminals aged 18 to 24 because of its price, easy street transfer and because “they shoot a lot quicker than a revolver,” in Campbell’s words.
— The median “time to crime” — the amount of time between a legally registered sale and the use of that weapon in a crime — was 6.1 years, slightly above the national median of 5.7 years.
Baltimore did do better than nearby Washington in the percent of criminal weapons for which authorities could establish a legal chain of custody.
Only 3 percent of Washington’s guns were determined to be legally owned at the time they were used to commit a crime. But authorities said that number was likely skewed by the District’s strict gun laws, which make legal gun possession extremely difficult.
Harold Scott Jr. of the ATF’s Washington field office defended the gun- tracing program and said the study showed how stopping illegal gun trafficking is now a “huge priority in the nation’s capital.”