Who's Profiting from Oakland's Gun Violence? 

As the city struggles with violent crime, major gun makers and their lobbyists are making a financial killing.

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But the ATF no longer produces publicly available detailed analyses of guns used in crimes. In 2003, Congress, backed by the gun industry, successfully passed the first of the Tiahrt Amendments, a series of prohibitory statutes that have blocked public access to the ATF database that traces recovered guns back to the point of sale. ATF now only releases aggregate data on guns used in crimes.

"It sheds light on why the gun lobby can thumb its nose at gun violence, twist gun violence to its own ends by mischaracterizing its nature, and fob off folksy pabulum about guns on both the public and uninformed policy makers," explained Tom Diaz, one of the nation's foremost experts on the gun industry.

According to the ATF's 2011 report on guns seized in California, a total of 894 firearms were recovered in Oakland that year. However, the ATF did not reveal the types or makes of the guns seized in Oakland, nor did it disclose where the weapons were purchased.

Diaz said this information vacuum is an industry strategy devised after the demise of Big Tobacco's power last decade. "Like the tobacco industry, the gun lobby has gone to extreme lengths to draw a veil of secrecy over the facts surrounding its terrifying impact on American life," he said. Instead of verified ATF data, violence researchers now primarily rely on media reports, Diaz said. "We can't go to the most obvious source because of Tiahrt."

A 2000 ATF Crime Guns Trace Report, outdated as it may be, is one of the few publicly available documents on the firearms problem in Oakland. ATF's researchers ran 325 trace requests for guns recovered in the city that year, including 145 semiautomatic pistols, 95 revolvers, 42 rifles, 38 shotguns, and 5 derringers. The ATF's report made it clear that two-thirds of the firearms recovered in Oakland in 2000 were legally purchased from a federally licensed dealer inside California. Although California has some of the strictest controls on assault weapons in the nation, the majority of firearms used in violent crimes on the streets of Oakland in 2000 were handguns, which are readily available at gun stores in Alameda County and neighboring areas. It was not the gun smugglers who provided most of the weapons used by criminals. Instead, it was legal dealers who bought straight from the gun factories.

But the gun lobby's influence over the ATF goes beyond making guns difficult to trace. It took the tragic massacre of twenty children and six teachers at Sandy Hook for President Barack Obama to nominate a permanent director for the ATF. The bureau has spun its wheels with a series of interim directors since 2006 when Congress, following the gun lobby's wishes, changed the law to require Senate confirmation. And due to budget cuts, the ATF now has fewer agents than it did in 1970, and now inspects gun stores only once every eight years on average.

The hobbling of the bureau by the gun lobby also has direct consequences for Oakland: an ATF contractor assigned to OPD to trace guns seized in joint local-federal sting operations was let go in late 2011 because of ATF budget cuts.

Diaz contends that the gun lobby keeps the ATF around as a convenient political bogeyman to mobilize gun-rights activists, even though the weapons industry has succeeded in declawing the bureau. "I call it the battered wife of Washington," Diaz said. The gun industry "doesn't want to shut [ATF] down, they want to keep it alive and ineffective, and it's probably the worst-run federal law enforcement agency."

And when the ATF is effective, that effectiveness typically involves programs designed to assist the industry. In 2006, the ATF named John Badowski as the bureau's "firearms industry technical advisor." His job is to oversee federal approval of gun-selling licenses. Prior to joining the ATF, Badowski worked for the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), the gun industry's official lobbying organization. For NSSF, Badowski developed a legislative- and policy-lobbying program for licensed gun sellers, and devised industry-wide marketing strategies. Badowski even launched a "high powered" training course on how to deal with adverse media inquiries following firearms crimes, according to a 2006 article in Shooting Industry magazine.

Limiting the effectiveness of the ATF is just one example of the many far-reaching, but little-known, victories for the gun industry since the mid 1980s. Topping the industry's political wins are campaigns to weaken federal and state firearms laws, budget cuts aimed at public health research on gun violence, and legislative immunity against tort lawsuits.

Few realize how much the gun industry influences and fuels these lobbying efforts, however. Instead, many erroneously believe that the gun lobby is a genuine grassroots movement run by gun lovers. In truth, the National Rifle Association, which dwarfs all other gun lobby groups (on both the pro and con side), has worked hand-in-glove with the firearms industry in recent decades.

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