It’s a big question: Where do criminals usually get their guns? Do they steal them, turn to the black market, or obtain them some other way?

According to two new university studies, it appears that even non-law-abiding citizens are far more likely to acquire guns from family and acquaintances than by theft.

guns firearms discovered by tsa

Myth that most guns used in crimes are stolen or from dirty dealers

“There are a number of myths about how criminals get their guns, such as most of them are stolen or come from dirty dealers. We didn’t find that to be the case,” says Philip J Cook, a professor of public policy, economics and sociology at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy.

One study asked inmates of the Cook County Jail in Chicago how they obtained guns, while a second project analyzed data that traced guns used in crimes. The gun trace requests were submitted to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) by the Chicago Police Department from 2009 to 2013.

Some of the most important findings from the studies:
  • 60 percent of the respondents obtained guns by purchase or trade.
  • Most offenders obtained guns from personal connections, not from gun stores or by theft.
  • Most of the guns were old (11 years old on average), and criminals held onto the guns a short time, frequently less than a year.
  • Chicago gangs sometimes organize gun buys and distribute guns to members.
  • The Chicago Police Department’s enforcement efforts had an influence on the underground gun market. Respondents were concerned with the higher risk of arrest when dealing with a stranger and about being caught with a “dirty” gun that had been fired in a previous crime.

In 2013, for the Cook County Jail Pilot Survey, researchers interviewed 99 inmates with a record of violence and gang involvement about their gun purchases. Chicago gun laws prohibit selling guns to people with criminal records, or those under 21 years old.

“One survey respondent gave what amounted to a lecture on how guns enter the neighborhood,” says Cook. That respondent said, “As far as Chicago, it’s so close to Indiana… there’s gun laws, but it’s easier to get access to guns in Indiana so most people either go to the down-South states or go to Indiana to get guns or people obtain gun licenses, go to the store and then resell.”

Criminals acquire guns through social connections

Information from the Cook County inmates lined up with findings in a second study, which identified straw purchasers and gun traffickers as key sources of crime guns in Chicago. Straw purchasers can pass a background check and buy guns that they transfer to others.

>> Our gun problem: Getting past all the noise

By linking ATF information that traced guns to crimes with information from the Chicago Police Department about the person caught with the gun, the researchers could identify which of them were gang members and compare their guns with those possessed by non-gang members.

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“Dirty dealers,” who deliberately violate the law and sell to buyers who cannot pass a background check, accounted for less than 5 percent of the guns sold to gang members.

More than 60 percent of the crime guns were initially purchased out of state. Meanwhile, 15 percent of new crime guns confiscated from a man were first purchased by a woman, which suggests a straw purchase.

The findings suggest that targeting by law enforcement of the intermediaries in the underground market, the straw purchasers and the traffickers helps reduce access to guns by some dangerous people, Cook says.

“This research demonstrates that current federal and local regulations are having a big effect on the availability of guns to criminals in Chicago,” he says. “They can’t buy their guns from stores, the way most people do, and are instead largely constrained to making private deals with acquaintances, who may or may not be willing and able to provide what they want.

“Other studies we have done have found that in many cases criminals go without guns because they don’t know how to get one,” says Cook. “We conclude that current enforcement is somewhat effective, and devoting more resources to enforcement would further constrain gun access by dangerous people.”


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About: "Sources of Guns to Dangerous People: What we Learn by Asking Them," Philip J Cook, Susan T Parker and Harold A Pollack. Preventive Medicine 79 (2015): 28-36. Special issue on The Epidemiology and Prevention of Gun Violence. doi.org/10.1016/j.ypmed.2015.04.021 / "Some Sources of Crime Guns in Chicago: Dirty Dealers, Straw Purchasers and Traffickers," Philip J Cook, Richard J Harris, Jens Ludwig and Harold Pollack. The Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology 104 (4) (2015): 717-759. The research was supported by operating grants to the University of Chicago from the MacArthur and McCormick foundations, as well as project grants from the Joyce and McCormick foundations and the Fund for a Safer Future.

Photo credit(s): Composite photo of guns discovered at airports courtesy of the TSA / Top photo thanks to Brett Hondow

Original publication date: September 16, 2015

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