X. How Do Criminals Acquire Guns?
Some scholars have asserted that professional gun traffickers (i.e., criminals who illegally sell substantial numbers of guns for profit) are significant sources of guns for criminals. The best available evidence, however, fails to support this claim. To be sure, burglars and other thieves sell guns that they come across in their criminal activities, but they average fewer than 4 guns a year, and some of these are sold to noncriminal buyers. Illicit gun selling is almost all done at a very low volume. Typical trafficking operations uncovered by law enforcement authorities handle fewer than 7 guns each, and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms uncovers fewer than 15 high-volume (> 250 guns) operations in the United States each year. High-volume trafficking probably supplies less than 1% of the guns in criminal hands.
Trafficking activity apparently has no measurable effect on levels of gun possession among criminals, or on violent crime rates. One likely explanation would be that nearly all traffickers’ potential criminal customers have other sources of guns (especially the pool of locally stolen guns) and are not dependent on traffickers. Consequently, even the best designed strategies aimed at reducing gun trafficking are unlikely to have any measurable effect on gun possession among criminals or on violent crime rates (Kleck &Wang, in press).
Instead, theft appears to be crucial as the mechanism that brings guns into criminal hands. NCVS data indicate that at least 400,000 to 600,000 guns are stolen each year, a number many times higher than any evidence-based estimate of the volume of trafficked guns (Kleck & Wang, in press). As a result, at any one time there are millions of stolen guns circulating among criminals. The volume of gun theft is so large that, even if one could completely eliminate all voluntary transfers of guns to criminals, including either lawful or unlawful transfers, and involving either licensed dealers or private citizens, and even if police could confiscate all firearms from all criminals each year, a single year’s worth of gun theft alone would be more than sufficient to rearm all gun criminals and supply the entire set of guns needed to commit the current number of gun crimes (Kleck, 1997, pp. 90–94). Interviews with incarcerated felons indicate that most guns acquired by criminals were probably stolen at some time in the past (Wright & Rossi, 1986).
Most gun theft is a by-product of residential burglary and other thefts from private owners. Less than 2% of stolen guns are stolen from gun dealers. Criminals do not typically go out looking for guns to steal but instead steal those they happen to come across in the course of crimes, most commonly in thefts from homes or vehicles. They usually sell the guns they steal, but most gun thieves have also retained at least one gun in their careers for their own use. They typically do not keep the gun not because they did not already have one but because the stolen weapon was “a nice piece.” Thus, criminals most commonly use theft as a way of upgrading the quality of their weaponry instead of as a way of becoming armed (Wright & Rossi, 1986).
Wright and Rossi (1986, p. 185) found that 16% of the felons’ handguns had been purchased from retail, presumably licensed, sources, probably because the criminals did not have any disqualifying criminal convictions at the time of purchase or because no background checks were required at that time. Surveys of incarcerated criminals also indicate that offenders believe they could get guns from multiple types of sources, so eliminating a single channel of guns usually would not prevent acquisition of a gun.