Expert Commentary

Source of offenders’ firearms in states with the least stringent gun laws

2013 study in the journal Injury Prevention evaluates relationship between the strength of state gun laws and offenders' acquisition of firearms.

In the wake of the Newtown, Conn., school shooting, the existing research on gun violence in America has been front and center in the political debate. Because of political constraints, some areas of government gun-related research have been stalled for years, as NPR reports. Despite this, there is a wide body of academic research on certain aspects of this problem, including on the dynamics particular to rampage shootings, the psychiatric dimensions of homicide, the effects of violent video games and media, and the general policies that have either worked or failed in the past.

Further, news organizations have done a great deal of analytical and data-oriented work. In a February 2013 post titled “Graphing the Great Gun Debate,” the investigative news organization ProPublica curated some of the best data visualizations relating to gun issues over the past few years.

The debate continues over whether stricter laws will keep more guns out of the hands of criminals or whether the existing laws simply need to be better enforced. Studying the variation in state-level gun laws can shed light on this question, highlighting how different rules might affect levels of violence. A 2013 study published in the journal Injury Prevention, “Legal Status and Source of Offenders’ Firearms in States with the Least Stringent Criteria for Gun Ownership,” analyzes a national survey of inmate offenders, focusing on those in the 13 states with the weakest gun control laws; the data included information on the source of offenders’ weapons. The study ultimately focused on 253 inmates who had committed crimes involving firearms acquired in the states with the most relaxed gun laws. Of these, 43% fired the gun during the incident in question, while the others reported carrying it either to scare victims or for self-protection.

As the researchers — from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health — note, “Under federal law, persons buying guns from licensed gun dealers must undergo a criminal history background check. But federal law and the law of most states do not require firearm sellers who are not licensed gun dealers to verify that purchasers of firearms are legally qualified to possess a firearm such as through a background check.”

The study’s findings include:

  • The data suggest that “40% of offenders incarcerated for committing crimes with a gun in the 13 U.S. states with the least strict standards for legal firearm purchase and possession were in possession of the gun illegally. 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 offense.”
  • However, the majority of the gun crimes studied would not have been directly prevented by stricter gun laws: “Regardless of how they obtained the gun, friends and family members were the most common source (34%), followed by drug dealers or other black-market sources (30.4%). Only 13.4% got the gun directly from a gun store or pawnshop where federal law requires prospective firearm purchasers to pass a background check.” (This does not indicate whether the gun may have originally been sold through a distribution channel subject to federal law and then passed on through informal channels.)
  • Among the 73 inmates who would have been prohibited from possessing a gun only under stricter standards, seven purchased their weapon at a gun store, pawnshop or show (compared with the 27 in this subset who got it on the street or black market). Among the 104 inmates who were prohibited under current law, four purchased the gun through such regulated outlets (compared with the 36 in this subset who got it on the street or black market).
  • “More than half (55.6%) of offenders for whom firearm purchase and possession was legal under current standards … bought or traded for the gun used in their most recent crime compared with two-fifths (39.2%) of offenders who were prohibited under current state or federal law.”

The researchers conclude: “Stricter gun ownership laws in states with the lowest standards would have made firearm possession illegal for many who used a gun to commit a crime. We are uncertain about the degree to which stricter legal standards for firearm possession might deter criminal gun possession and use. But, adding barriers for the acquisition of guns by high-risk persons is an underused potential intervention.”

Tags: guns, crime

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