Magazine article Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal

After Columbine

Magazine article Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal

After Columbine

Article excerpt

On the day after the worst school shooting in U.S. history, we began thinking about the arsenal two teenagers carried in trench coats to Columbine High.

As police investigators extricated guns, ammunition clips, homemade pipe bombs and the bodies of children from the school library, The Denver Post launched what would become a year-long examination of the firearms trade.

We knew little on April 21 about the guns used to kill and wound more than 30 students and a teacher, only that Dylan Klebold, 17, and Eric Harris, who had just turned 18, somehow possessed two sawed-off shotguns, a semiautomatic rifle, a handgun and hundreds of rounds of ammunition.

One reporter called a leading Colorado firearms dealer that day to ask how two boys could have acquired all those guns. They must have been stolen, he was told.

"The easiest way to get a gun is to steal it," the store manager said. "Ninety-nine percent of criminals steal the guns they use in crimes."

Some myths die hard.

In the United States, the primary source of guns used in crimes is not thievery, but a largely unregulated market of private gun sales and of "straw purchasers" fronting for the real buyers. The Columbine tragedy proved a classic example.

We used a database of Colorado people and addresses, sources in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, federal firearms records, a lawsuit against a Miami gun manufacturer and shoe-leather reporting to identify the Columbine guns and retrace their trail. The killers had bought three guns at a Colorado gun show with the help of Robyn Anderson, an 18-year-old friend. They supplied the cash. She supplied a driver's license to private vendors who sold them two shotguns and a rifle - no questions asked, no background checks, no sales records. Since a federal law prohibiting "straw purchases"' pertains only to sales by licensed firearms dealers, her purchases were legal.

The fourth gun was a TEC-DC9 pistol, banned from manufacture as an assault weapon in 1994, but produced in such last-minute abundance that new, "pre-ban" guns were available for years. This one was sold as new in 1998, in another private gun show sale. The buyer, Mark Manes, resold it months later to Klebold and Harris. He got six years in prison for selling one handgun to minors.

Using ATF databases

In Congress and in Colorado, legislative battles have raged over bills requiring background checks on all gun show sales. Defeated in Colorado, the gun show bill is expected to reappear on the 2000 ballot. When other shooting rampages followed the Columbine massacre, The Post used two ATF databases to help broaden its coverage of the gun trade. One database listed guns traced by police agencies from 1994 through 1998. The other contained multiple handgun purchases reported from 1995 through 1997. Each served as the starting point for a three-day series, one on police gun sales, the other concerning crimes traceable to multiple handgun sales.

Paying for these databases was the easy part. They cost a total of $75. Using them was another matter. Jeff Roberts, The Post's editor for computer-assisted projects, soon learned that ATF's database of traced guns came with various categories of information deleted. Moreover, there were codes ATF would not translate and, in most cases, some fields of information had simply been left blank.

The handgun Buford Furrow used to shoot children at a Jewish day care center once belonged to a small police department. Using the database of traced guns, we set out to explore how often guns sold by police departments were later seized by other police departments.

Matching criminals to guns

ATF's database held a code indicating when a gun was traced to a law enforcement agency. It also listed a federal crime code on each seizure. ATF would disclose neither code. But researchers and former ATF officials confirmed that SS was the code for a gun traced back to police, and the Colorado Bureau of Investigation supplied a translated list of crime codes. …

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