Expert Commentary

Profiling gun dealers, pawnbrokers and illegal weapons sales

2013 review of studies that provide insight into the nature of gun sellers and sales transactions, with an emphasis on illegal purchasing attempts and related research on gun laws.

Although there is constant theoretical debate about the Second Amendment and the regulation of firearms in the United States, little concrete data has been gathered on the sociological and demographic dynamics at the source of sales — the licensed dealers and pawnbrokers from whom most Americans obtain guns.

Two studies published in 2013 by medical and public health researcher Garen J. Wintemute, who directs the Violence Prevention Research Program at UC Davis, help fill in this picture. Both papers are based on data generated by a 2011 mail-based survey, which represents the first national attempt to gather such information. Among 1,601 gun sellers contacted, 591 responded. The sellers contacted were selected on the basis of having recorded a certain number of background checks with federal authorities in the course of sales. The median annual sales figure was about 200 firearms for both dealers and pawnbrokers.

One study, “Characteristics of Federally Licensed Firearms Retailers and Retail Establishments in the United States: Initial Findings from the Firearms Licensee Survey,” published in the Journal of Urban Health, analyzes the survey data to establish more precisely a profile of people who sell guns. The average profile looked as follows: the median age was 54; 89.6% were male, and 97.6% were white. Further, “only 19.1% of this group had been licensed for less than five years; 18.3% had been licensed for 30 years or more.” Other findings include:

  • “A large majority (518 respondents, 96.3%) agreed that ‘private ownership of guns is essential for a free society,’ and there was little variation among subgroups of respondents… Just over half (292 respondents, 54.9%) believed that ‘it is too easy for criminals to get guns in this country.’”
  • “Most respondents were gun dealers (380, 64.3%), with significant variation by region; dealers accounted for 55.8% of respondents in the South, 63.4% in the West, 78.1% in the Midwest, and 100% in the Northeast. Dealers, but not pawnbrokers, maintained a variety of business premises…. Residential dealers accounted for 25.6% of all dealers in the Midwest, 17.0% in the West, 14.6% in the South, and 6.7% in the Northeast.”
  • “Sales on the Internet were reported by 164 respondents (28.3%), among whom Internet sales accounted for a slightly higher percentage of all sales for dealers … than for pawnbrokers…. Twenty-two respondents, 19 of whom were dealers, reported that [at least] 50% of their firearm sales were made on the Internet.”

A second study by Dr. Wintemute, “Frequency of and Responses to Illegal Activity Related to Commerce in Firearms: Findings from the Firearms Licensee Survey,” published in the journal Injury Prevention, looks at the same survey data but focuses on the experience of gun brokers with attempts to purchase weapons illegally. A “straw” purchase is defined as the use of a person, or surrogate, to purchase the weapon for someone who likely does not want to undergo a background check. That study finds the following:

  • “Attempted illegal firearm purchases were frequent occurrences for these federally licensed firearm dealers and pawnbrokers. Many thousands of such attempts likely occur each year. A rough estimate, which assumes that the respondents’ experience is representative, is that the 9,720 licensees in the 43 study states selling 50 or more firearms a year experienced 33,800 attempted straw purchases (range 28,500-43,600) and 37,000 attempted undocumented purchases (range 29,700-57,000) in the year prior to the survey. Firearm theft was also common.”
  • “As compared to dealers, pawnbrokers experienced illegal purchase attempts and theft more frequently, even when controlling for other factors that have been identified in prior research.”
  • “Attempted illegal purchases and theft were related to sales to women, which have been linked to disproportionate sales of traced firearms…. The association with straw purchases is of particular interest. Studies of firearm trafficking and gun shows have found that women often serve as straw purchasers. Media reports have discussed increasing firearm sales to women, yet the prevalence of firearm ownership among women has remained stable.”
  • Finally, “there was a strong association between gun show sales and attempted undocumented purchases. Unlicensed private parties, from whom undocumented purchases may be legal, account for 25%-50% of firearm vendors at gun shows, and licensed sellers are often not easily identifiable as such at these events.”

Related research: A 2013 study in Injury Prevention, “Legal Status and Source of Offenders’ Firearms in States with the Least Stringent Criteria for Gun Ownership,” analyzes data from a national survey of prison inmates and finds that “40% of offenders incarcerated for committing crimes with a gun in the 13 US states with the least strict standards for legal firearm purchase and possession were in possession of the gun illegally.” The researchers, Katherine A. Vittes, Jon S. Vernick and Daniel W. Webster of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, conclude that “if these states had adopted more restrictive standards like those in place in a number of other states, an additional 29% of the persons incarcerated for committing a crime with a firearm would have been legally prohibited from possessing a firearm at the time of their current offence.”

Further, a 2013 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, “Firearm Legislation and Firearm-related Fatalities in the United States,” analyzes 2007-2010 data and concludes that “a higher number of firearm laws in a state was associated with a lower rate of firearm fatalities in the state. This association was present both before and after controlling for other state-specific and socioeconomic factors.” The researchers, Eric W. Fleegler, Lois K. Lee, Rebekah Mannix and Michael C. Monuteaux of Harvard Medical School and David Hemenway of the Harvard School of Public Health, note that during period 2007-2010 there were “121,084 firearm fatalities in the United States, including 73,702 firearm suicides and 47,382 firearm homicides.”

Finally, media outlets such as the New York Times continue to investigate the various mechanisms by which guns are sold on the Internet, often with little oversight or rules in place (also see Wired magazine’s explainer on the issue). Research from the U.S. National Institute of Justice provides further insights on illegal gun markets. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) also keeps track of the number of guns reported stolen or lost each year: In 2012 alone, 190,342 firearms were reported lost or stolen — and 16,667 of these were from federal firearms licensees.

Keywords: guns, crime, law, pawn shop, pawnshop, research roundup

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