Stolen guns are fueling violent crime across the country

The federal government recently produced two notable documents on gun violence last week. The first, a report by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, provided a measure of the mayhem induced by the deregulation of firearms and the removal of strictures on virtually anyone wishing to possess them. The second, a ruling by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, was a solemn promise of more chaos to come.

The ATF report, which analyzed the years 2017 to 2021, noted the proliferation of ghost guns, which lack serial numbers and can’t be traced, at crime scenes. Recoveries of ghost guns used in crimes rose by a factor of 10, from fewer than 2,000 in 2017 to almost 20,000 in 2021. The report also registered which semi-automatic pistols are preferred by criminals, with Glock leading the pack.

But the preferences of criminals are only one element of gun violence. The recklessness of gun owners is also a key to fueling the illegal gun trade that, in turn, powers violent crime. Private citizens wind up supplying more than a quarter of a million guns to criminals every year. From 2017 to 2021, 1,074,022 firearms were reported stolen, the overwhelming majority from private gun owners. Remarkably, roughly 1 in 4 firearm thefts aren’t reported.

“There are enough firearms stolen on an annual basis to arm all offenders who commit firearm homicides, firearm assaults, and firearm robberies each year,” the ATF report states.

A 2017 study by researchers at Northeastern University and Harvard found that people with a lot of guns are those most likely to lose them. “Risk factors for having a gun stolen were owning 6 or more guns, owning guns for protection, carrying a gun in the past month, storing guns unsafely, and living in the South region of the United States,” the study notes.

In other words, if gun culture is your way of life, you are more likely to be an unwitting participant in criminal culture as well. Owning six guns, for example, is not uncommon among gun owners; the average is around five, according to a survey conducted in 2015 — before a COVID-era spike in gun purchases.

Meanwhile, the ATF reported that the top five states for gun thefts are Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, South Carolina and Georgia. Those states have other factors in common, including permissive gun laws, high rates of gun ownership and high rates of gun violence.

Guns intensify violence is a good rule of thumb. It’s also the promise that the 5th U.S. Circuit Court just made to Americans. A three-judge panel of the appeals court ruled that violent domestic abusers can’t be denied access to firearms. Society is complex, and few things are guaranteed, but the 5th Circuit ruling is close to a sure thing: It will produce deaths at home and perhaps, given the strong correlation between domestic violence and mass shootings, also death for strangers living far outside any particular abuser’s asserted realm of control.

The court adapted its opinion to conform to the Supreme Court’s Bruen ruling of last year, in which Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that only gun laws with “historical analogues” to the founding era around 1791 and the so-called second founding around 1868 can pass constitutional muster. It’s a ruling that enshrines our ancestors’ brutality and misogyny (women couldn’t vote and had few rights in either era) in 21st century America.

The crude effect of the 5th Circuit opinion seems clear: It will arm violent men and put their current or former partners at greater risk. The almost certain result will be intensified violence. At some point the relentless, mad drive to make America more violent must stop. But that end is not yet in sight.

Francis Wilkinson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. ©2023 Bloomberg. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.

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