Late Thursday night a madman approached a police cruiser in Philadelphia and fired at least 11 times at the officer in the vehicle, striking him three times in the left arm.

Even with those wounds, the officer was able to get out, chase the shooter and return fire, striking him in the buttocks.

The shooter would later tell the police, according to Capt. James Clark, commander of the Police Department’s homicide division: “I follow Allah and I pledge allegiance to the Islamic State. That is the reason why I did what I did.”

This is a disturbing reminder of the influence of ISIS on individuals disposed to acts of terror, and how hard it is to identify all of them before they commit a violent act.

But the episode also highlighted something else that does not get enough discussion: the use of stolen guns in crimes.

You see, the gun used in the Philadelphia attack had been stolen, from a police officer no less, in 2013.

Our current discussion about increasing gun regulations often centers on efforts that would mostly affect people who legally buy firearms. Many of them make sense, in theory, but the truth is that they would not be likely to have a huge impact on criminal gun violence, because many of those criminals obtain their weapons illegally.

So, when the gun lobby and gun owners make this case, we must admit that they have a point.

In 2013, Samuel Bieler of the Urban Institute wrote a fascinating article about where criminals get their guns, and his findings were somewhat shocking.

Corrupt dealers supply some of the guns. According to Bieler:

“Some researchers have suggested that gun retailers divert a relatively low volume of weapons, while others have found them to be a major source.”

Some come from gangs and family and friends. Specifically, “Research has put their role as a supply source at 30 to 40 percent of crime guns, but little is known about the composition of this nebulous ‘friends and family’ category.”

And research by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives suggests that “just one percent of licensed firearms dealers sold more than half of the guns recovered in crimes, and that most gun dealers rarely have one of their guns show up in crime.”

But what I found most shocking was the number of guns that are stolen each year: as many as half a million. Each year! And many of those stolen guns are then used in other crimes.

In a 2003 book, “The Challenge of Crime,” published by Harvard University Press, authors quoted researchers who found the following:

“They learned that 32 percent of the felons had acquired their most recent weapon through their own theft; an additional 14 percent knew that their friend, family, or street source had stolen the weapon before conveying it; and an additional 24 percent thought that the weapon probably had been stolen by his source. At least 46 percent, then, and possibly as many as 70 percent of felons’ most recently owned firearms had been stolen either by the offender himself or by the source from whom he acquired the weapon. In addition, 47 percent of the respondents quizzed as to whether they had ever stolen a firearm during a crime admitted to so doing and 86 percent of the felons who admitted prior stealing of firearms reported multiple thefts.”

Rather than focusing on all guns, the vast, vast majority of which are owned by responsible people and are never used in the commission of a crime, we have to focus on keeping guns out of the hands of this relatively small number of criminals.

People, including the president in his speech and town hall meeting last week, like to compare increasing gun regulations to the way cars are regulated. But they didn’t simply get safer due to regulations. They also got safer because the market desired more safety, as well as anti-theft features. Many of the innovations, carmakers came up with on their own. The gun market doesn’t behave that way.

Furthermore, cars are required to be licensed, registered, insured and periodically inspected. Also, you can’t hide a car the way you can hide a gun. Cars are operated on public roads.

If we want to truly put a dent in gun violence, we must take some incredibly unpopular steps in some pockets. Safety features — including smart guns that can only be fired by the owner — are going to have to be added to the market. That will be hard to sell because no one wants a gun to fail to because it lacks a charge or due to a technology glitch. One of benefits of traditional guns is that, technologically, they are simple and ancient. There are no batteries or chips.

We are also likely to have to register guns and require insurance. This would be almost impossible, given the gun lobby’s and many gun owners’ current stance and the paranoid fears of confiscation, a fear some liberals feed.

Making guns safer and keeping more of them out of the hands of criminals and in the hands of responsible owners can be done, but not as long as many responsible owners are also unreasonable ones.


Charles M. Blow is a New York Times columnist.

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