The Gunrunner and the Peacemakers 

Oakland's gun violence epidemic seems impossible to stop. But the story of a local firearms trafficker illustrates how laws that make it tougher to buy guns can help reduce violence.

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Dix's journey into the world of gun policy is deeply personal. In 1994, his fifteen-year-old son, Kenzo, was accidentally shot and killed at a friend's house. "His friend decided to show him his father's gun," Dix recalled. The friend retrieved the firearm, ejected the magazine, and put an empty magazine in the pistol while Kenzo waited in another room. The friend had shot the Beretta pistol at the range with his father before and thought he knew how to disarm it. He came into the room and pulled the trigger thinking it would just go "click." But there was still a bullet in the chamber, and the gun didn't have a prominent chamber loaded indicator, a mechanism that firearms manufacturers and the NRA oppose. "If the gun had had a chamber loaded indicator, he would have known the bullet was still in the chamber," said Dix. "That bullet killed my son."

In 2003, Dix helped win passage of legislation requiring all new guns sold in California to have a built-in chamber loaded indicator — a law that has likely saved hundreds of lives.

Dix is a grieving parent on a mission, but he also came at the gun problem with the eyes of a social scientist, seeking root causes and practical ways to address them. "I was interested in cultural and social systems and how things work," said Dix, an anthropologist who taught cultural anthropology at Santa Clara University before he retired. "That made me want to understand the whole system that led to my son's death." Dix readily admits that his research doesn't use the most advanced statistical methods to control for other variables, and that in addition to California's gun laws, there are other reasons that the firearms mortality rate has declined.

But researchers who have spent their careers using the best available data and methods have also found reason to believe that California's firearms regulations are reducing the availability of guns to people who intend to commit crime. In 2014, Glenn Pierce, a research scientist at the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northeastern University who has spent decades studying firearms violence and gun markets, examined ATF firearms tracing data from the years 2003 to 2006. Pierce and his colleagues concluded that California's stricter gun sales laws and meticulous state record-keeping have had a significant impact on reducing illegally trafficked guns.

"It indicates that it's harder for criminals to get a gun," said Pierce. "Does that translate into a lower number of gun crimes than there otherwise would be? You can infer that it should be," said Pierce. "But it's hard to do that type of research with the restrictions we have on data — because of the Tiahrt Amendment."

The Tiahrt Amendment, named after former-Congressmember Todd Tiahrt, R-Kansas, effectively banned the ATF from making its gun tracing data available to anyone except law enforcement agencies. That makes it impossible for researchers like Pierce to examine how the legal firearms market feeds the underground market for crime guns.

But even with this legislative roadblock in place, Pierce said the evidence supports California-style regulations. Trafficked firearms bought from licensed dealers are a prime source of crime guns, and anything that clogs this pipeline of weapons has a positive effect.

"Most of the guns already owned by private individuals, as the NRA often says, are owned by upstanding and responsible citizens and won't end up in the hands of criminal," said Pierce. "If it's the leader of the Mafia, do they know how to get a gun? Of course. But the people who end up committing most gun crimes are not that sophisticated, and better laws could make it more likely on a probabilistic basis that they won't be able to obtain a firearm."

Dix said for all the progress California has made, the state's gun problem is still an epidemic that needs to be addressed, and that there are pockets in California where guns are still far too easy to get because of trafficking. "As we know, there's still a big problem in places like Oakland," Dix said. "It's still too easy to traffic guns from other states, and there's so many guns already around."

Delvecchio said that the ATF's San Francisco Field Division office sometimes has to decline requests from local police agencies for extra assistance in serious firearms cases. "We only have so many people and resources based on what headquarters gives us, and headquarters only has as much as Congress gives them," said Delvecchio. "Sometimes, we have to say 'no.' Sometimes, I have to tell [local police] I can't give them a body on a full-time basis."

Two weeks ago, Audrey Candy Corn, the mother of Torian Hughes, told family and friends gathered at his memorial service that shortly before Hughes was gunned down, he said he was scared to walk the streets of Oakland. He was afraid of the ubiquitous threat of gun violence and worried constantly about being shot in a robbery or a random confrontation. On December 20, Hughes's fears came true at the corner of Mandela Parkway and 8th Street in West Oakland.

Two men approached him in broad daylight. One of them pulled a gun and fatally shot Hughes. This was the second to last homicide in Oakland in 2015, a year that ended with 93 killings, almost all of them committed with a gun.

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