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GunsHow dangerous people get their guns

By Philip Cook

Published 25 January 2016

The San Bernardino massacre is unique in several respects, but it does bring into focus an important issue with broad relevance: how do dangerous people obtain guns, and what should the police and courts be doing to make those transactions more difficult? Criminal assaults with guns kill thirty Americans every day, and injure another 170. 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. Unlike in the case of Enrique Marquez, a friend and neighbor of the terrorist couple who purchased two military-style rifles for them, it is rare for the people who provide these guns to the eventual shooters to face any legal consequences. Currently it is rare for those who provide guns to offenders to face any legal consequences, and changing that situation will require additional resources directed to a proactive enforcement directed at penetrating the social networks of gun offenders.

The San Bernardino massacre is unique in several respects, but it does bring into focus an important issue with broad relevance: how do dangerous people obtain guns, and what should the police and courts be doing to make those transactions more difficult?

The shooters — Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik — utilized several guns in their attack on Farook’s coworkers during a holiday party in November that killed 14 and injured 22. In addition to two pistols, this husband-wife team had two military-style rifles that were purchased by a friend and neighbor, Enrique Marquez Jr.

It appears that Farook relied on Marquez because he doubted that he could pass the background check that gun dealers are required to conduct on all buyers. Marquez has now been charged with several crimes, including making a “straw purchase” — that is, he swore to the dealer that he was buying the guns for his own use, but in fact he was acting on behalf of Farook.

How does this terrorist attack relate to the more routine gun violence that afflicts many American neighborhoods? Criminal assaults with guns kill thirty Americans every day, and injure another 170.

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. Unlike in the case of Enrique Marquez, 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?

Undocumented and unregulated transactions
When asked where and how they acquired their most recent firearm, about 60 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. (The other 40 percent received it as a gift or acquired it in a private transaction that in most cases was legal.)

But while a majority of owners obtain their guns in transactions that are documented and for the most part legal, the same is not true for criminals.