Where Gun Runners and Drug Runners Collide

The Nicholas Cage gun-kingpin biopic “Lord of War,” may have performed modestly at the box office, but not without trying. The film has all the trappings of “business-of-war” drama, highlighting the opulence, yet danger and morally bankruptcy of international arms trafficking trade.

But while some international traffickers certainly make massive paydays obtaining proper end-to-end certificates and providing governmental deniability, most domestic dealers are small-time, buying and selling weapons at small prices and for small rates. On this week’s episode of Drugs, Inc., the crew follows an Oakland, Ca. gun dealer who traffics in arms to local drug dealers. While his deals aren’t Cage-worthy, they expose the vital codependence of criminal enterprises and the black market weapons trade.

If a weapon is found at a crime scene, law enforcement will attempt to find where the gun was purchased and by whom. But this approach may not yield too many leads due to the massive amounts of firearms in circulation in America. The sheer numbers are staggering: according to CNBC, Americans own 41 percent of the worlds firearms, totally 266.5 million. For perspective, that’s 89 civilian guns per 100 Americans.

This is where the traffickers come in. According the National Gun Victims Action Council, approximately 12,000 annual gun murders and 66,000 non-fatal shootings are committed by people who aren’t legally permitted to own a firearm. Yet many traffickers exploit two common ways to ensure that criminals can illegally access arms, as noted by The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

The first is corrupt federally licensed gun dealers, or Federal Firearms Licensees (FFLs). The NGVAC claims that FFLs send more guns to the criminal market than any other single source. Usually they can do this by intentionally “misplacing” guns, keeping the sales under the table and not leaving a solid trace of their activities while reporting the guns as missing or stolen. Many private gun sellers are not even required to keep records of transactions.

The number of FFLs selling guns illegally isn’t high – 60 percent of guns can be traced back to 1.2 percent of dealers. When the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms traced guns in the early 1990s, they found that there was a significant “time-to-crime” ratio of guns purchased from these FFLs, which indicates possible illegality.

The correlation strongly suggests that many of these licensed dealers who report large quantities of lost, misplaced or stolen guns are either illegally selling the guns directly themselves, or are dealing with black market middlemen who channel guns to the streets.

Though a few licensed gun dealers may be providing a lopsided amount of weapons on the black market, most criminals obtain guns through a method called straw purchasing. This method requires enticing a relative, spouse, or friend with a clean record to purchase a gun for an individual prohibited from doing so. This way, felons can avoid background checks that would otherwise make it illegal for them to obtain firearms.

Straw purchases are illegal, however if a firearm is considered a “gift,” and no money is exchanged for the purchase, the purchaser has not broken the law.

Straw purchasing and illegal purchasing at gun stores is extremely widespread. According to a comprehensive study conducted by UC Davis, attempted illegal gun purchases occur 30,000 to 40,000 times each year. Guns for sale at pawnshops are also a target – according to the Huffington Post, 78.1 percent of pawnbrokers reported at least one illegal attempt in the past year.

If they’re not connected to wholesale vendors, smaller traffickers can have a hand in these processes as well, purchasing a gun for a felon, and taking a cut from the price differential. Examples of straw purchasers who traveled between gun stores and purchased weapons for felons and underage criminals were key to failed federal gun control legislation in 2013.

Common knowledge among law enforcement has long held that criminals get their hands on weapons by simply stealing them. And while this certainly occurs in many cases, PBS’s Frontline notes that this is far from the most popular method, noting that only 10-15 percent of stolen guns are actually used in crimes. This low number is due to the relative ease of using a straw purchaser.

Some vocal critics of the current gun control system have advocated for background checks, arguing that they would work because they don’t target the actual criminal. They deter straw purchasers, and can expose those who are running mass straw-purchasing operations employed by traffickers. Though many criminals have a stake in obtaining a gun, and don’t hesitate to chance buying them despite higher sentences for illegal gun possession, straw purchasers don’t have the same incentive. However, recent attempts to enact these changes have mostly failed.