There’s a story behind every firearm used in a crime. For example: How does a gun purchased legally out of state end up at a Lawrence shooting? Together, those stories can help uncover the drivers of gun violence. Do guns used for crimes in certain Boston neighborhoods, for instance, come more often from particular dealers?
Such information and more is available by analyzing crime-gun tracing data. In Massachusetts, which already has some of the strongest gun laws in the country, landmark legislation was passed in 2014 requiring state and local law enforcement agencies to report tracing data from recovered firearms used to carry out crimes. These data points include: the make, model, serial number, and caliber of the weapon; the type of crime; whether the gun had been reported as lost or stolen, and other metrics.
So far, the state has issued one annual report summarizing the data, but no detailed analysis has yet been performed to identify meaningful trends. That’s why legislators and advocates introduced language in the state budget requiring such comprehensive analysis. The results would better inform public policy and law enforcement efforts to fight gun violence. It’s a small investment that could save lives.
Last year, the state’s executive office of public safety and security commissioned Northeastern University to conduct a firearms assessment study, but it has a different goal — to evaluate the 2014 gun legislation and its implementation. Specifically analyzing gun trace data is the best way to evaluate the effectiveness of state gun policies, says Michael Siegel, a professor and researcher at the Boston University School of Public Health. By having a better idea of exactly where guns are coming from, “it gives law enforcement the potential to interfere with trafficking and reduce the flow of guns into our communities,” he says.
Research on gun violence has been famously challenging to perform, given the strong lobbying by the National Rifle Association. At the federal level, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives collects tracing data on guns used in crimes from state and local law enforcement agencies, but it’s a very limited data set and is not made public (you can thank the NRA for such limitations, of course).
While mass shootings get most of the attention, urban gun violence — including homicides and nonfatal shootings — hasn’t been studied enough. With progress at the federal level stymied by pro-gun politicians, states have to take the lead investigating how guns get here. Studying the state’s trace data is one way to start.
Governor Charlie Baker is now reviewing the budget, and can veto line items. But the gun trace data study must not be one of them. The neighborhoods most vulnerable to gun violence deserve the insights that will emerge.