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CrimeCriminals acquire guns through social connections, not through theft or dirty dealers

Published 21 September 2015

Criminals are far more likely to acquire guns from family and acquaintances than by theft, according to two new studies. “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 one of the researchers.

Criminals are far more likely to acquire guns from family and acquaintances than by theft, according to new studies by researchers at Duke University and the University of Chicago.

“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,” said Philip J. Cook, a professor of public policy, economics and sociology at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy.

Duke University reports that 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.

Key findings from the studies include:

  • 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 twenty-one years old.

The study, “Sources of Guns to Dangerous People: What we Learn by Asking Them,” was published online by the journal Preventive Medicine and will appear in print next month in a special issue, “The Epidemiology and Prevention of Gun Violence.” The research was supported by the Joyce Foundation.

“One survey respondent gave what amounted to a lecture on how guns enter the neighborhood,” said 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.”