How dangerous people get their weapons in America

Philip Cook, Duke University

The recent mass shooting in Las Vegas that left dozens of people dead and hundreds injured raises two important questions: How do dangerous people get their guns? And what should the police and courts be doing to make those transactions more difficult?

The fact is that, even leaving aside the assault in Las Vegas and terrorist attacks like the one in San Bernardino, California, in 2015, gun violence is becoming almost routine in many American neighborhoods. The U.S. homicide rate increased more than 20 percent from 2014 to 2016, while last year’s 3.4 percent rise in the violent crime rate was the largest single-year gain in 25 years.

The guns carried and misused by youths, gang members and active criminals are more likely than not obtained by transactions that violate federal or state law. And, as I’ve learned from my decades of researching the topic, it is rare for the people who provide these guns to the eventual shooters to face any legal consequences.

How can this illicit market be policed more effectively?

Police officers stand at the scene of a shooting near the Mandalay Bay resort and casino on the Las Vegas Strip.
AP Photo/John Locher

Undocumented and unregulated transactions

The vast majority of gun owners say they obtained their weapons in transactions that are documented and for the most part legal.

When asked where and how they acquired their most recent firearm, about 64 percent of a cross-section of American gun owners reported buying it from a gun store, where the clerk would have conducted a background check and documented the transfer in a permanent record required by federal law. Another 14 percent were transferred in some other way but still involved a background check. The remaining 22 percent said they got their guns without a background check.

The same is not true for criminals, however, most of whom obtain their guns illegally.

A transaction can be illegal for several reasons, but of particular interest are transactions that involve disqualified individuals – those banned from purchase or possession due to criminal record, age, adjudicated mental illness, illegal alien status or some other reason. Convicted felons, teenagers and other people who are legally barred from possession would ordinarily be blocked from purchasing a gun from a gun store because they would fail the background check or lack the permit or license required by some states.

Anyone providing the gun in such transactions would be culpable if he or she had reason to know that the buyer was disqualified, was acting as a straw purchaser or if had violated state regulations pertaining to such private transactions.

The importance of the informal (undocumented) market in supplying criminals is suggested by the results of inmate surveys and data gleaned from guns confiscated by the police. A national survey of inmates of state prisons found that just 10 percent of youthful (age 18-40) male respondents who admitted to having a gun at the time of their arrest had obtained it from a gun store. The other 90 percent obtained them through a variety of off-the-book means: for example, as gifts or sharing arrangements with fellow gang members.

Similarly, an ongoing study of how Chicago gang members get their guns has found that only a trivial percentage obtained them by direct purchase from a store. To the extent that gun dealers are implicated in supplying dangerous people, it is more so by accommodating straw purchasers and traffickers than in selling directly to customers they know to be disqualified.

A makeshift memorial in Chicago lies at the site where a baby girl, her mother and her father – a known gang member – were shot in 2013. Most Chicago gang members appear to get their guns secondhand.
AP Photo/M. Spencer Green

The supply chain of guns to crime

While criminals typically do not buy their guns at a store, all but a tiny fraction of those in circulation in the United States are first sold at retail by a gun dealer – including the guns that eventually end up in the hands of criminals.

That first retail sale was most likely legal, in that the clerk followed federal and state requirements for documentation, a background check and record-keeping. While there are scofflaw dealers who sometimes make under-the-counter deals, that is by no means the norm.

If a gun ends up in criminal use, it is usually after several more transactions. The average age of guns taken from Chicago gangs is over 11 years.

The gun at that point has been diverted from legal commerce. In this respect, the supply chain for guns is similar to that for other products that have a large legal market but are subject to diversion.

In the case of guns, diversion from licit possession and exchange can occur in a variety of ways: theft, purchase at a gun show by an interstate trafficker, private sales where no questions are asked, straw purchases by girlfriends and so forth.

What appears to be true is that there are few big operators in this domain. The typical trafficker or underground broker is not making a living that way but rather just making a few dollars on the side. The supply chain for guns used in crime bears little relationship to the supply chain for heroin or cocaine and is much more akin to that for cigarettes and beer that are diverted to underage teenagers.

There have been few attempts to estimate the scope or scale of the underground market, in part because it is not at all clear what types of transactions should be included. But for the sake of having some order-of-magnitude estimate, suppose we just focus on the number of transactions each year that supply the guns actually used in robbery or assault.

There are about 500,000 violent crimes committed with a gun each year. If the average number of times that an offender commits a robbery or assault with a particular gun is twice, then (assuming patterns of criminal gun use remain constant) the total number of transactions of concern is 250,000 per year.

Actually, no one knows the average number of times a specific gun is used by an offender who uses it at least once. If it is more than twice, then there are even fewer relevant transactions.

That compares with total sales volume by licensed dealers, which is upwards of 20 million per year.

All in the family

So how do gang members, violent criminals, underage youths and other dangerous people get their guns?

A consistent answer emerges from the inmate surveys and from ethnographic studies. Whether guns that end up being used in crime are purchased, swapped, borrowed, shared or stolen, the most likely source is someone known to the offender, an acquaintance or family member.

For example, Syed Rizwan Farook – one of the shooters in San Bernardino – relied on a friend to get several of the rifles and pistols he used because Farook doubted that he could pass a background check. That a friend and neighbor was the source is quite typical, despite the unique circumstances otherwise.

Also important are “street” sources, such as gang members and drug dealers, which may also entail a prior relationship. Thus, social networks play an important role in facilitating transactions, and an individual (such as a gang member) who tends to hang out with people who have guns will find it relatively easy to obtain one.

Effective policing of the underground gun market could help to separate guns from everyday violent crime. Currently it is rare for those who provide guns to offenders to face any legal consequences, and changing that situation will require additional resources to penetrate the social networks of gun offenders.

Needless to say, that effort is not cheap or easy and requires that both the police and the courts have the necessary authority and give this sort of gun enforcement high priority.

The ConversationThis is an updated version of an article originally published on Jan. 15, 2016.

Philip Cook, Professor of Public Policy Studies, Duke University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

When gun control makes a difference: 4 essential reads

Emily Schwartz Greco, The Conversation

Editor’s note: This is a roundup of gun control articles published by scholars from the U.S. and two other countries where deadly mass shootings are far less common.

An underresearched epidemic

Guns are a leading cause of death of Americans of all ages, including children. Yet “while gun violence is a public health problem, it is not studied the same way other public health problems are,” explains Sandro Galea, dean of Boston University’s School of Public Health.

That’s no accident. Congress has prohibited firearm-related research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health since 1996. Galea says:

“Unfortunately, a shortage of data creates space for speculation, conjecture and ill-informed argument that threatens reasoned public discussion and progressive action on the issue.”

The Australian model

The contrast with Australia is especially stark. Just as Congress was barring any research that might strengthen the case for tighter gun regulations, that country established very strict firearm laws in response to the Port Arthur massacre, which killed 35 people in 1996.

To clamp down on guns, the federal government worked with Australia’s states to ban semiautomatic rifles and pump action shotguns, establish a uniform gun registry and buy the now-banned guns from people who had purchased them before owning them became illegal. The country also stopped recognizing self-defense as an acceptable reason for gun ownership and outlawed mail-order gun sales.

These measures worked. Simon Chapman, a public health expert at the University of Sydney, writes:

“When it comes to firearms, Australia is far a safer place today than it was in the 1990s and in previous decades.”

There have been no mass murders since the Port Arthur massacre and the subsequent clampdown on guns, Chapman observes. In contrast, there were 13 of those tragic incidents over the previous 18 years – in which a total of 104 victims died. Other gun deaths have also declined.

Concerns about complacency

After so many years with no mass killings, some Australian scholars fear that their country may be moving in the wrong direction.

Twenty years after doing more than any other nation to strengthen firearm regulation, “many people think we no longer have to worry about gun violence,” say Rebecca Peters of the University of Sydney and Chris Cunneen at the University of New South Wales. They write:

“Such complacency jeopardizes public safety. The pro-gun lobby has succeeded in watering down the laws in several states. Weakening the rules on pistols so that unlicensed shooters can walk into a club and shoot without any waiting period for background checks has resulted in at least one homicide in New South Wales.”

In the UK

Like Australia, the U.K. tightened its gun regulations following its own 1996 tragedy – when a man killed 16 children and their teacher at Dunblane Primary School, near Stirling, Scotland.

Subsequently, the U.K. banned some handguns and bought back many banned weapons. There, however, progress has been less impressive, notes Helen Williamson, a researcher at the University of Brighton. On the one hand, the number of firearms offenses has declined from a high of 24,094 in 2004 to 7,866 in 2015. On the other, criminals are growing more “resourceful in identifying alternative sources of firearms,” she says, adding:

The Conversation“Although the availability of high-quality firearms may have fallen, the demand for weapons remains. This demand has driven criminals to be resourceful in identifying alternative sources of firearms. There are growing concerns about how they could acquire instructions online on how to build a homemade gun, or even 3D-print a functioning pistol.”

Emily Schwartz Greco, Philanthropy and Nonprofits Editor, The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.