My earlier assertion that a data-base matching ballistic signatures from test-fire rounds with the serial numbers of the corresponding guns could have speeded the capture of John Allen Muhammed needs some qualification. It was based on news reports that he had bought the gun from a gun store in his own name. That should have meant that the store still had Muhammed’s gun buyer form, linked to the rifle’s serial number. But it turns out that the store has no such form. So a ballistics trace would have led to the store, but it wouldn’t have led directly to the shooter.

Muhammed obtained the gun sometime after June. (We know that because that’s when the gun store got it from the manufacturer.) By then he was the subject of a domestic violence restraining order and therefore not legally eligible to buy or possess a firearm. (I was also wrong to say that it was his purchase of the murder rifle that formed the basis for the federal warrant on which he was arrested. In fact, it was his sale, in May, of another Bushmaster; the sale was evidence of possession, and his possession of the weapon was a crime. As to why he sold one rifle in May and bought another sometime after June, your guess is as good as mine.)

Perhaps the gun was stolen from the store — most likely by an employee, since there’s no evidence of a break-in — and sold to Muhammed. Or perhaps he walked into the store, bought the gun, and induced someone there not to do the required paperwork. The store in question has had some record-keeping problems in the past; in an ATF audit two years ago, it couldn’t account for 150 weapons.

It would be nice to think that whoever provided Muhammed his rifle was in big trouble legally, but in fact the penalties for gun trafficking are so low that most federal prosecutors can’t even be bothered to file charges.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: