The struggle to figure out how Boston Marathon bombing suspects Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev obtained their weapons began almost immediately after the manhunt ended, but very little has yet been discovered, thanks in part to policies pushed by the NRA that obfuscate how a criminal gets his or her weapons.
While law enforcement has argued that it would be helpful to be able to trace weapons to their source, the National Rifle Association has led the charge against any laws that might make this possible. Here’s a look at how the NRA’s pet policies are working against the public good:
Guns are hard to trace. There is no easy way for federal officials to trace a gun used in a crime. Shops are required to keep personal records, and can be asked to hand these over for criminal investigations, but federal officials can’t keep those records anywhere. That means every time the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) seeks to establish the origins of a crime gun, it must go through a series of complicated and time-consuming steps. This likely has slowed down any reporting over where the Tsarnaev brothers purchased their weapons, and if they did so legally. But even if the information about how the brothers obtained their guns were easily traceable, the NRA also pushed through the Tiahrt Amendments, which significantly block the ability of the ATF to obtain or disseminate the information it can obtain. The amendments make it much easier for gun shop owners who might be irresponsibly selling firearms to keep their identities hidden.
Gunpowder is hard to trace. Police might not have had to resort to combing through hours or video to find the bombers if the NRA hadn’t stopped a law that would have created traceable gunpowder. The National Memo pointed out that the NRA played a huge role in stopping gunpowder “taggants,” traceable elements that exist in plastic explosives, poisons, and much of the food sold in the US.
Stolen weapons are hard to trace. Gun dealers aren’t required to take any kind of inventory of their stores, meaning that lost or stolen guns slip off the radar. The President tried to rectify that problem in his latest budget, but Congress has not.
Police couldn’t detect a pattern of suspicious purchases. Another of the Tiahrt amendments stipulates that any background check data used to issue a gun to someone is destroyed within 24 hours, down significantly from the previous target of six months (and before that, 90 days). But, caving to pressure from the NRA, Congress has forced the FBI to stick to a 24-hour retention period— hardly enough time to detect a pattern of purchasing like the stockpiling of ammunition. Add to that the fact that there is no background check on gunpowder — though Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) has introduced legislation that would require just that — and it becomes nearly impossible to trace the brothers’ actions.
Reports from Massachusetts show that police think the Tsarnaevs illegally obtained their weapons. That state is one of a few that issues licenses on hand guns, and no licenses were issued in the brothers’ names. Indeed, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was too young to legally purchase a firearm in Massachusetts. But it’s very possible that the brothers crossed state lines and made a private purchase of a firearm. The world might never know.