Report: South a big exporter of guns used in crime

Published 9:20 pm Friday, December 5, 2008

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Ten states are responsible for the bulk of illegal guns that are shipped across state lines for use in crimes, according to a report released Friday by a national coalition of mayors.

About 30 percent of guns traced by federal agents in 2006 and 2007 during crime investigations were bought in a state other than where the crime occurred, said the report by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which largely blamed the transport of illegal guns on states with lax gun laws.

For 2007, the top sources for guns used in crimes elsewhere were Georgia, Florida, Texas, Virginia, California, Ohio, North Carolina, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Alabama.

However, the report’s authors placed greater emphasis on per-capita exports of guns, saying that data is a better indicator of lax gun laws. The gun-friendly South accounted for a disproportionate amount of the problem when population size was factored in, according to the report.

West Virginia is the top exporter, per capita, of illegal guns, with 41 traced guns per 100,000 state residents, followed by Mississippi, at 39 guns per 100,000, and South Carolina, at 31. The average national rate is 11 exported guns. Kentucky, Alabama, Virginia, Georgia, Indiana, Nevada, and North Carolina round out the top 10 exporting states, per capita, reads the report, titled “The Movement of Illegal Guns In America: The Link between Gun Laws and Interstate Trafficking.”

“States with larger populations and states with greater gun sales volumes may be expected to be a source of more crime guns,” the report read.

But the report said per capita rates can “more accurately determine which states are disproportionate suppliers of interstate crime guns.”

A spokesman for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a co-founder of the mayors’ group, said the report is meant to raise awareness.

“Clearly, a small number of states are contributing to a very dangerous national problem,” said Mark LaVorgna. “The lack of effort in some states is causing gun crimes in other states that have strong laws.”

Guns bought in Hawaii, the District of Columbia — which had banned handguns for 30 years — New Jersey and Massachusetts are least likely to be recovered in a crime elsewhere, the report said.

A spokesman for the National Rifle Association declined to comment on the report, saying the group had not had time to review it.

South Carolina Rep. Mike Pitts, an ardent gun rights supporter, said the state’s high ranking doesn’t surprise him. He recalled a burglary at his home, saying the thief stole about a dozen of his guns.

“It’s not our lax gun laws. It’s our high crime rate that causes the problems,” said the Laurens Republican, a retired police officer and a National Assembly of Sportsmen’s Caucuses committee member. “What’s happening is people break into my home, steal my guns and get a premium price by taking it to other states and selling them.”

LaVorgna countered Pitts’ argument, saying the data is clear, and that break-ins occur in all states.

The report analyzed five gun laws, noting that weapons purchased at gun shows — where background checks on buyers aren’t required — could be bought for criminal purposes. Only nine states and Washington, D.C., require some form of check for handgun sales at gun shows.

“This so-called ‘gun show loophole’ allows individuals who are prohibited from possessing or purchasing firearms, such as convicted felons and persons with mental illness, to sidestep the background check and obtain guns from unlicensed sellers at gun shows,” the report reads.

A spokesman for South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, who signed a bill removing the one-a-month limit on how many handguns a person can buy, said state laws are not the problem.

“We think we have adequate controls in place,” said Joel Sawyer. “Unfortunately, criminals are always going to find a way to circumvent the process.”

The mayors’ group, co-founded by Bloomberg and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, is made up of more than 340 mayors from across the country, concentrated in the Northeast, Florida and California.

Their report is based on data from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which traces guns recovered at crime scenes.

It noted that traced guns don’t represent all guns used in crimes because some guns are never recovered and because some police agencies don’t trace every gun found at a crime scene. It also specifies the ATF often can’t determine where a gun came from due to inaccurate record-keeping by gun makers and retailers. In 2007, 40 percent of trace attempts were unsuccessful. But the report concludes there’s no evidence failed traces distort its findings, since incomplete traces don’t vary substantially between states.