4 Interventions Aimed at Illegal Firearm Acquisition

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Firearms are bought and sold in markets, both formal and informal. To

some observers this suggests that one method for reducing the burden of

firearm injury is to intervene in these markets so as to make it more

expensive, inconvenient, or legally risky to obtain firearms for criminal use.

As guns become more expensive to acquire or hold, it is hypothesized that

criminals will reduce the percentage of their criminal careers in which they

are in possession of a gun. However, the pervasiveness of guns and the

variety of legal and illegal means of acquiring them suggests the difficulty of

keeping firearms from people barred by law from possessing them. The

goals of this chapter are to provide a systematic analytic framework linking

interventions to the outcomes of interest and to describe what is known

about the effectiveness of those interventions. We also suggest a research

agenda that addresses the major unanswered questions.

Market-based interventions intended to reduce criminal access to guns

include taxes on weapons and ammunition, tougher regulation of federal

firearm licensees, limits on the number of firearms that can be purchased in

a given time period, gun bans, gun buy-backs, and enforcement of laws

against illegal gun buyers or sellers. Other interventions that may have

market effects—for example, storage requirements (such as trigger locks or

the placement of firearms in secure containers) and mandating new technologies

that personalize guns so only lawful owners can fire them—are

dealt with in detail elsewhere in the report. While these new technologies

may make new guns less attractive relative to older secondhand guns and

thus reduce the attractiveness of guns in aggregate to offenders, the potential

market effects are probably secondary to other mechanisms by which

these interventions may lower firearms injuries, such as preventing children

from accidentally hurting themselves or others (see Chapter 8).

Little is known about the potential effectiveness of a market-based

approach to reducing criminal access to firearms. Arguments for and against

such an approach are based largely on speculation rather than research

evidence. There is very little of an analytic or evaluative nature currently

available in the literature on market interventions. Even on most descriptive

topics (e.g., gun ownership patterns, types of guns used in crimes), there are

only a few studies, often not well connected, that have been adequately

summarized in existing papers (e.g., Braga et al., 2002; Hahn et al., 2005).

We begin with a brief discussion of legal and illegal firearms commerce,

followed by a summary of what is known about the methods by which

offenders acquire guns. We then present an analytic framework to understand

the effects of specific interventions on gun markets. The next section

reviews the literature evaluating various interventions. The final section

presents the committee’s views about high-priority research activities. The

relationship of firearms acquisition and markets to suicide is quite different

and is discussed in the chapter on suicide.

We note that the interventions discussed here may impose costs on

legitimate users of firearms. A waiting period law inconveniences hunters

and others who use firearms in legitimate fashion. In addition to delays, the

system may generate errors, causing unnecessary embarrassment or worse.

Some interventions putatively have no such effects and may even facilitate

the activities of legitimate owners; for example, gun buy-backs can only

help by providing another outlet for individuals wishing to dispose of existing

weapons with minimal inconvenience. No research has explored these

effects, although they may be important in forming attitudes toward gun

control proposals.


Legal and Illegal Firearms Commerce

In the United States, there are some 258 million privately owned firearms,

including nearly 70 to 90 million handguns (Police Foundation, 1996;

see also Table 3-2). Some 4.5 million new firearms, including about 2

million handguns (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, 2000b) and

about 2 million secondhand guns, are sold each year in the United States

(Police Foundation, 1996). Legal firearms commerce consists of transactions

made in the primary firearms market and in the largely unregulated

secondary firearms market. Acquisitions (other than theft) of new and

secondhand firearms from federal firearms licensees (FFLs), whether conducted

properly or not, form the primary market for firearms (Cook et al.,

1995). Retail gun stores sell both new and secondhand firearms and, in this

regard, resemble automobile sales lots. FFLs are required to ask for identification

from all prospective gun buyers and to have them sign a form

indicating that they are not prohibited from acquiring a firearm; the FFL

must also initiate a criminal history background check of all would-be

purchasers. FFLs are also required to maintain records of all firearms transactions,

report multiple sales and stolen firearms to the Bureau of Alcohol,

Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF), provide transaction records upon request

to BATF; when they go out of business, they are required to transfer their

records to BATF.

A privately owned gun can be transferred in a wide variety of ways not

involving FFLs, such as through classified ads in newspapers, gun magazines,

and at gun shows (which include both licensed and unlicensed dealers).

Transfers of secondhand firearms by unlicensed individuals form the

secondary market, for which federal law does not require transaction

records or criminal background checks of prospective gun buyers (Cook et

al., 1995). Using household survey data, Cook and Ludwig (1997) estimate

that about 2 million transactions per year (30-40 percent of all gun transactions)

occur in the secondary market. Primary and secondary firearms markets

are closely linked because many buyers move from one to the other

depending on relative prices and other terms of the transaction (Cook and

Leitzel, 1996).

Since states vary greatly in their requirements on secondary firearms

market transfers (see, e.g., Peters, 2000), another way to think about firearms

commerce is to distinguish between regulated and unregulated transfers.

In Massachusetts, for example, all firearms transfers must be reported

to the state police, and secondary markets can be regulated through inspection

of these transfer records (Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 140).

In neighboring New Hampshire, however, sales of guns by private citizens

are not recorded, and even legitimate transfers in the secondary market

cannot be monitored. In this report we use the primary/secondary distinction

because it is standard, but regulation is probably the critical distinguishing


Figure 4-1 presents a conceptual scheme of the flow of firearms to

prohibited persons developed by Braga and his colleagues (2002). Through

theft, firearms can be diverted to criminals and juveniles at any stage of

commerce. Guns can be stolen from manufacturers, importers, distributors,

licensed dealers, and private citizens. Cook et al. (1995) estimated that

some 500,000 guns are stolen each year. This estimate, derived from National

Crime Victimization Survey data for the years 1987 to 1992, suggests

that 340,700 thefts occurred annually in which one or more guns were

stolen; separate data from North Carolina suggest that on average 1.5 guns

are stolen per theft (Cook et al., 1995). This figure is also consistent with a

similar estimate calculated for the Police Foundation (Cook and Ludwig,

1997), which used data from a telephone survey of a nationally representative

sample of 2,568 adults in which those who were gun owners reported

firearms theft and the number of firearms stolen per theft. Braga et al.

(2002) also identify three broad mechanisms through which criminal consumers

acquire firearms from licensees without theft: straw purchase, “lying

and buying,” and buying from a dealer who is willing to ignore regulations.

A straw purchase occurs when the actual buyer, typically someone

who is too young or otherwise proscribed, uses another person to execute

the paperwork. Lying and buying refers to prohibited persons (e.g., felons

and juveniles ) who purchase firearms directly by showing false identification

and lying about their status. And in some cases the seller is knowingly



Straw purchases

Lying and buying

Off-the-books sales






Breakage Confiscation Breakage Illegal



Authorized Proscribed

Possessors Possessors




Retail Dealers



FIGURE 4-1 Firearms flows.

SOURCE: Braga et al. (2002).

involved and may disguise the illegal transaction by falsifying the paper

record of sale or reporting the guns as stolen.

The available research evidence suggests that gun-using criminals go

through a number of guns during the course of their short careers. The

population of active street criminals is characterized by brief careers (typically

5 to 10 years) and many interruptions through incarceration and

injury (National Research Council, 1986). Each year a substantial fraction

of current offenders are released from prison and may have to acquire new

weapons in order to continue their criminal career; others will have just

begun their careers and must obtain guns from somewhere. Survey research

on criminally active populations suggests that gun offenders buy, steal,

borrow, sell, and otherwise exchange guns quite frequently (Wright and

Rossi, 1994; Sheley and Wright, 1993).

Young offenders have been noted as active in illegal markets both as

sellers and buyers of guns through their informal networks of family,

friends, and street sources. Using data from self-administered questionnaires

completed by 835 male inmates in six correctional facilities in four

states between November 1990 and February 1991, Sheley and Wright

(1993) found that 86 percent of juvenile inmates had owned at least one

firearm at some time in their lives, 51 percent reported having personally

dealt with many guns before being incarcerated, and 70 percent felt that

they could get a gun “with no trouble at all” upon release. Wright and

Rossi (1994) found that 75 percent of incarcerated adult felons had owned

at least one firearm at some time in their lives and, for those who did report

ownership, the average number of guns owned prior to their current incarceration

was approximately six. For incarcerated felons who reported stealing

at least one gun, 90 percent also reported that they had sold or traded a

stolen gun at least once in the past, and 37 percent had done so many times.

It is also important to recognize that guns have value in exchange as

well as in use. Based on interviews with youth offenders, Cook and his

colleagues (1995) suggest that guns were valuable commodities for youth to

trade for services, money, drugs, or other items such as video games, VCRs,

phones, and fax machines.

Guns are not costly when compared with other durable goods but may

constitute a large asset in the portfolio of drug users or of youth. The retail

prices of guns vary greatly based on the type, manufacturer, model, caliber,

and age. For example, the suggested retail price of a new high-quality 9mm

semiautomatic pistol is about $700, while a secondhand low-quality one

can retail for as little as $50 (Fjestad, 2001). The proximate source of a gun

can also influence its price for prohibited persons. Sheley and Wright’s

(1995) survey research suggests that juveniles paid less for guns acquired

from informal and street sources than for guns acquired through normal

retail outlets, such as gun stores and pawnshops: 61 percent of the juvenile

inmates and 73 percent of the high school students who acquired their guns

from a retail outlet paid more than $100, while only 30 percent of the

juvenile inmates and 17 percent of the high school students who acquired

their most recent gun from an informal or street source paid more than

$100 (Sheley and Wright, 1995:49). We do not know whether this is driven

by differences in the quality of the guns purchased or in the costs of distribution

in the two sectors.