A bead on illegal firearms

Susan Ginsburg '75 helped transform law enforcement's understanding of how criminals get guns, providing new ways to crack down on the illegal firearms market. An adviser at the U.S. Treasury, Ginsburg arranged for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) to undertake the widespread tracing of guns used in crimes. Until recently, it was thought that most criminals stole their guns, so little was done to limit their accessibility. As a result of the ATF traces, however, it is now known that most criminals buy their firearms from licensed dealers and gun traffickers. In turn, police across the nation are able to target corrupt dealers and illicit traffickers for the first time.

Ginsburg says she is an "accidental convert" to gun control, having had no special interest in it until she attended an academic conference on youth violence in Santa Fe in 1995. There, scholars shared their research suggesting that many criminals and juveniles do not steal guns but buy new guns, directly or indirectly, from licensed dealers. Turning that research into policy, Ginsburg greatly increased the number of crime guns the ATF traced. The agency has since recruited 50 cities and six states to trace every gun they recover in crimes.

Tracing has turned up crucial findings. It has shown that only 1.2 percent of gun dealers accounted for more than half of the crime guns traced in 1998. "Once attention is drawn to a scofflaw gun dealer," says Ginsburg, "federal and local authorities may require changes in the business or shut it down." Also, tracing has underscored scholars' initial discovery that criminals and juveniles want only high-powered semiautomatic handguns.

A recent New York Times article stressed how remarkable it was that Ginsburg avoided publicity for her efforts and stayed out of the media. She explains that Treasury secretaries and other officials were the public spokespeople on the national problem of gun violence, whereas her job was "to fill out the details of their vision with effective policies and programs. It can be counterproductive for ideas-in reality developed by many people over time-to be associated with only one person."

Ginsburg says the next step in reducing gun violence "is to make sure that all gun sales include background checks to screen out prohibited buyers and a transaction record to help police when guns are misused." Now, only federally licensed gun stores conduct background checks; private sellers do not. "Under-age buyers, convicted felons, those who have been adjudicated mentally ill or are under domestic violence restraining orders-these and other people legally prohibited from possessing guns can all too easily buy them from these sources," she explains.

Ginsburg, who has a law degree from Penn, cites Hannah Arendt as a major influence. In her M. Carey Thomas Award acceptance speech, Arendt stressed " 'knowledge for its own sake.' This made a deep impression on me. It was very freeing and yet carried with it the implication that one had to stand by the conclusions one drew from one's thinking." Ginsburg has applied the maxim to her own life: "In earning a living, I have tried to make sure that the activity-in recent years, public service and trying to reduce gun deaths and injuries-is something I do principally for its own sake, rather than remuneration or recognition. Being committed to the endeavor ... allows one to ride out the inevitable conflicts and setbacks in any undertaking."

Her advice to those who want to pursue politics or government is "to try it out by working in any job you can get" and to study law, government and economics to gain an understanding of history, "our constitutional principles and the processes and levers of institutions and change. The lesson taught by Bryn Mawr-that it is knowledge and disciplined attention to problems that yield results-has become even more important today. Festina lente makes especially good sense in a complex, media-saturated world where effective communication can be mistaken for meaningful content. But the most important thing is to do what you do for its own sake."

Return to profiles page

MHK