Editorial: Database needed to track guns

Publication of an ATF report on the number of lost and stolen guns nationwide is a good step in identifying areas of concern, but the agency would be doing a much bigger public service by publishing detailed lists of the specific dealerships that are reporting the most losses.

Maryland ranked third for the most guns reported lost or stolen from dealers and civilians. Nationwide in 2012, the ATF report said more than 190,000 guns were reported lost or stolen.

The ATF over the years has traditionally fought any attempts to publicize lost or stolen guns. This report, however, came after President Barack Obama ordered an audit after the Newtown, Conn. shootings.

Tracking guns reported lost or stolen is valuable because it can identify shops that report a higher than average number of such instances. In some cases, the shops may just be located in areas prone to break-ins. In other instances, however, they may point to a dealer who sells guns off the books to someone who might otherwise not be able to purchase one, and then report the weapon as lost or stolen.

When Lee Boyd Malvo and John Lee Muhammad were shooting innocent civilians in the Washington, D.C. area, a Tacoma, Washington gun shop came under ATF scrutiny as the place where the snipers got their .223-caliber Bushmaster AR-15 that they used in their sniper attacks. According to a Seattle Times report at the time, the ATF linked guns obtained at the shop to 52 killings, assaults and other crimes.

Obama's action in requiring the audit is a good first step in helping people understand how guns can sometimes get into the hands of criminals. But it is a small step. The ATF says that it does not have the manpower to inspect all gun dealers every year, but the agency could require detailed reports on the number of weapons lost or stolen, as well as their type and other information, and put the information in a nationwide database that would provide some insights into trends and patterns for specific areas.

Officials in Maryland are wondering why it is that the state ranks so high in the ATF report for lost or stolen guns. Many residents likely are wondering the same.

The ATF should release detailed information concerning how and where these firearms went missing, and look a little closer at some of the dealers who report larger than average numbers.