The authors say that more frequent inspections of gun shops could lead to a reduction in gun violence. Photo: Aristide Economopoulos for New Jersey Monitor.
UNC-Chapel Hill is not yet finished with the first month of classes, but it has already been forced to conduct its second active-shooter lockdown. Two weeks ago, a faculty member was fatally shot. And this week a gun was reportedly brandished at a bagel shop near the student union on campus.
These events come on the heels of a racially motivated mass shooting in Florida, and you can’t blame members of the UNC who jump to those conclusions, fearing a similar event on their campus as well. It’s a justified fear: we are not yet 9 months into 2023 and we’ve had over 470 mass shootings so far. Almost two per day.”
The late August tragedy in Chapel Hill was not a mass shooting. There were no assault rifles or high-capacity magazines; the assailant wasn’t decked out in swat gear. There were no racist manifestos posted online beforehand. Instead, a deeply troubled individual took a 9mm handgun—still missing, but likely obtained legally from a licensed firearm dealer—and fired it at a single person.
This crime has a name: homicide. And it’s the kind of crime that can be prevented through some practical and boring steps that can save lives and make our streets safer. When it comes to gun violence, our laws have no teeth because we simply don’t put sufficient resources into enforcing them.
Gun-related homicides often involve a legally purchased firearm. But “legally purchased” just means that the assailant bought the gun from a licensed firearm dealer. How do we know the purchase was legal? How do we know that gun dealers are taking appropriate safeguards when they sell weapons to the public? Simple: for that, we have federal ATF agents who inspect gun dealers to make sure they comply with local regulations.
And there’s the real problem. ATF agents are in chronic shortage. As an example, the Charlotte field office, which oversees North and South Carolina, has about 25 agents for roughly 6,500 gun dealer locations. A compliance inspection in this division takes an average of 54 investigator hours. To complete all 6,500 inspections, the Charlotte division needs 351,000 investigator hours. The ATF estimates that a federal employee has approximately 1,500 hours a year to devote to operational activities. Let’s assume every ATF agent in the division works the entire year. They never get sick, their kids never get COVID, and they work solely on compliance inspections. Even with that leap of faith, Charlotte only has about half the ATF agents it needs to cycle through all the dealers in the jurisdiction once every three years.
You read that right: the Charlotte field office has fewer than half the agents it needs to visit each gun dealer in its jurisdiction once every three years. Are you a gun dealer in the Carolinas? Watch out! Every seven years or so the Feds might show up and look at your books. And the Carolinas are not the most understaffed. Kansas and Ohio are worse.
Why does this matter? Because chronic understaffing is associated with dramatically higher gun violence of all forms.
The numbers are stark. We examined data from the state of Pennsylvania that allow us to trace the gun used in a crime back to its time and place of purchase. More than ten times the number of homicides occurred using guns that originated from the bottom quarter of worst staffed jurisdictions than from the top quarter of best staffed jurisdictions. Inspections matter.
This suggests a simple answer: hire more agents. Tragedies like the one at UNC occur every day across the country. They happen because we do not have enough federal agents to enforce the laws we have. The next time gun violence happens in your neighborhood, don’t ask politicians to show heroic courage and engage in a reasoned dialog about gun violence. History suggests it will lead nowhere. Instead, ask for something boring: More ATF agents to increase the frequency of gun dealer inspections.
The data tell us that this is the kind of quiet, boring, incremental change that will actually save lives.
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