Survey Research

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A number of inmate surveys have documented the wide variety of

sources of guns available to criminals and youth. Table 4-1 summarizes

some of the basic findings from three of the most widely cited of these

surveys. Precise patterns are sometimes difficult to discern because different

definitions and questions are used to elicit similar information. Nevertheless,

survey research has documented a wide variety of sources of guns and

methods of firearm acquisition used by criminals and youth. Guns referenced

in these surveys come from a variety of sources, including family

members, friends, the black market, and direct theft.

Wright and Rossi’s (1994) 1992 survey of 1,874 convicted felons serving

time in 11 prisons in 10 states throughout the United States, for example,

revealed a complex market of both formal and informal transactions, cash

and noncash exchange, and new and used handguns. Felons reported acquiring

a majority of their guns from nonretail, informal sources. Only 21 percent

of the respondents obtained the handgun from a retail outlet, with other

sources including family and friends (44 percent) and the street (that is, the

black market), drug dealers, and fences (26 percent). Moreover, the majority

of handguns were not purchased with cash. Of the surveyed felons, 43 percent

acquired their most recent handgun through a cash purchase, while 32

percent stole their most recent handgun. The remainder acquired their most

recent handgun by renting or borrowing it, as a gift, or through a trade.

Finally, almost two-thirds of the most recent handguns acquired by felons

were reported as used guns, and one-third were reported as new guns. Illicit

firearms markets dealt primarily in secondhand guns and constituted largely

an in-state, rather than out-of-state, market.


TABLE 4-1 Sources and Method of Handgun Acquisition by Criminals

Method of Firearm Acquisition as Source of Firearm as Reported by

Study Measure Reported by Prison Inmates Prison Inmates

Bureau of Justice Handgun possessed 27% retail purchase 31% family/friends

Statistics (1993) by inmate 9% direct theft 28% black market/fence

27% retail outlet

Wright and Rossi Most recent 43% cash purchase 44% family and friends

(1994) handgun— 32% direct theft 26% black market/fence

incarcerated 24% rent/borrow, trade, or gift 21% retail outlet

felons Estimated 40-70% directly or

indirectly through theft

Sheley and Wright Most recent 32% straw purchase 90% from friend, family, street, drug

(1993) handgun— 12% theft dealer, drug addict, house or car



Results from a 1991 Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) survey of some

2,280 handgun-using state prison inmates support Wright and Rossi’s observation

that the illicit firearms market exploited by criminals is heavily

dominated by informal, off-the-record transactions, either with friends and

family or with various street sources (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1993).

The 1991 survey found that only 27 percent of the inmates who used a

handgun in crime that led to their incarceration reported they obtained the

handgun by purchase from a retail outlet. In contrast to the Wright and

Rossi (1994) findings, the BJS survey found that only 9 percent of inmates

who used a handgun in a crime had stolen it. More recently, Decker and

colleagues’ (1997) analysis of arrestee interview data (i.e., the Arrestee

Drug Abuse Monitoring Survey) revealed that 13 percent of arrestees admitted

to having a stolen gun. Among juvenile males, one-quarter admitted

to theft of a gun (Decker et al., 1997).

Sheley and Wright’s (1993) survey of high school students and incarcerated

juveniles suggested that informal sources of guns were even more

important to juveniles.1 More than 90 percent of incarcerated juveniles

obtained their most recent handgun from a friend, a family member, the

street, a drug dealer, or a drug addict, or by taking it from a house or car

(Sheley and Wright, 1993:6). Sheley and Wright (1995) found that 12

percent of juvenile inmates had obtained their most recent handgun by theft

and 32 percent of juvenile inmates had asked someone, typically a friend or

family member, to purchase a gun for them in a gun shop, pawnshop, or

other retail outlet. When juveniles sold or traded their guns, they generally

did so within the same network from which they obtained them—family

members, friends, and street sources (Sheley and Wright, 1995).

BATF Firearms Trace Data

BATF firearms trace data, described in Chapter 3, have been used to

document that firearms recovered by law enforcement have characteristics

suggesting they were illegally diverted from legitimate firearms commerce

to criminals and juveniles (see, e.g., Zimring, 1976; Kennedy et al., 1996;

Wachtel, 1998; Cook and Braga, 2001). Trace data, reflecting firearms

recovered by police and other law enforcement agencies, have revealed that

a noteworthy proportion of guns had a “time to crime” (the length of time

from the first retail sale to recovery by the police) of a few months or a few

years. For example, Cook and Braga (2001) report that 32 percent of

traceable handguns recovered in 38 cities participating in BATF’s Youth

1In addition to the incarcerated juvenile sample described above, Sheley and Wright also

surveyed 758 students enrolled at 10 high schools in 5 large cities that were proximate to the

juvenile correctional facilities they surveyed between 1990 and 1991.

Crime Gun Interdiction Initiative (YCGII) were less than 3 years old. Cook

and Braga (2001) also report that only 18 percent of these new guns were

recovered in the possession of the first retail purchaser, suggesting that

many of these guns were quickly diverted to criminal hands. Recovered

crime guns are relatively new when compared with guns in public circulation.

Pierce et al. (2001) found that guns manufactured between 1996 and

1998 represented about 14 percent of guns in private hands, but they

accounted for 34 percent of traced crime guns recovered in 1999.

Wright and Rossi (1994) found that criminals typically use guns from

within-state sources, whereas the 1999 YCGII trace reports suggest that the

percentage of crime guns imported from out of state is closely linked to the

stringency of local firearm controls. While 62 percent of traced YCGII

firearms were first purchased from licensed dealers in the state in which the

guns were recovered (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, 2000c),

this fraction was appreciably lower in northeastern cities with tight control—

for example, Boston, New York, and Jersey City—where less than

half of the traceable firearms were sold at retail within the state. A noteworthy

number of firearms originated from southern states with less restrictive

legislation, for example, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida

(Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, 2000c).

Moreover, by examining the time-to-crime of out-of-state handguns in

the trace data, Cook and Braga (2001) concluded that the process by which

such handguns reach criminals in these tight-control cities is not one of

gradual diffusion moving with interstate migrants (as suggested by

Blackman, 1997-1998, and Kleck, 1999); rather, the handguns that make it

into these cities are imported directly after the out-of-state retail sale. In

contrast, Birmingham (AL), Gary (IN), Houston (TX), Miami (FL), New

Orleans (LA), and San Antonio (TX), had at least 80 percent of their

firearms first sold at retail in the state in which the city was located (Bureau

of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, 2000c). Kleck (1999) attempts to explain

the interstate movement of crime guns by simply observing that,

according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 9.4 percent of the United States

population moved their residence across state lines between 1985 and 1990.

These migration patterns, however, do not necessarily explain the big differences

in import and export patterns across source and destination states

as well as the overrepresentation of new guns that show up in tight-control

cities from other loose-control states.

BATF Investigation Data

While analyses of BATF trace data can document characteristics of

crime guns that suggest illegal diversions from legitimate firearms commerce,

trace data analyses cannot describe the illegal pathways through

which crime guns travel from legal commerce to its ultimate recovery by

law enforcement. BATF also conducts numerous investigations both in the

course of monitoring FFL and distributor compliance with regulations and

following detection of gun trafficking offenses. Analyses of BATF firearms

trafficking investigation data provide insights on the workings of illegal

firearms markets (see, e.g., Moore, 1981; Wachtel, 1998). To date, the

most representative look at firearms trafficking through a comprehensive

review of investigation data was completed by BATF in 2000. This study

examined all 1,530 investigations made between July 1996 and December

1998 by BATF special agents in all BATF field divisions in the United

States2 (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, 2000d). They involved

the diversion of more than 84,000 guns. As indicated in Table 4-2, the

study revealed a variety of pathways through which guns were illegally

diverted to criminals and juveniles.

TABLE 4-2 Volume of Firearms Diverted Through Trafficking Channels


Source N(%) Guns Mean Median

Firearms trafficked by

straw purchaser or

straw purchasing ring 695 (47%) 25,741 37.0 14

Trafficking in firearms by

unregulated private sellersa 301 (20%) 22,508 74.8 10

Trafficking in firearms at

gun shows and flea markets 198 (13%) 25,862 130.6 40

Trafficking in firearms stolen

from federal firearms licensees 209 (14%) 6,084 29.1 18

Trafficking in firearms stolen

from residence 154 (10%) 3,306 21.5 7

Firearms trafficked by federal

firearms licensees,

including pawnbroker 114 (8%) 40,365 354.1 42

Trafficking in firearms stolen

from common carrier 31 (2%) 2,062 66.5 16

aAs distinct from straw purchasers and other traffickers.

NOTE: N = 1,470 investigations. Since firearms may be trafficked along multiple channels,

an investigation may be included in more than one category. This table excludes 60 investigations

from the total pool of 1,530 in which the total number of trafficked firearms was


SOURCE: Adapted from Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (2000d).

2This does not include simple Armed Career Criminal or Felon in Possession cases.

The BATF study found that 43 percent of the trafficking investigations

involved the illegal diversion of 10 guns or fewer but confirmed the existence

of large trafficking operations, including two cases involving the diversion

of over 10,000 guns. Corrupt FFLs accounted for only 9 percent of the

trafficking investigations but more than half of the guns diverted in the pool

of investigations. Violations by FFLs in these investigations included “off

paper” sales, false entries in record books, and transfers to prohibited

persons. Nearly half of the investigations involved firearms trafficked by

straw purchasers, either directly or indirectly. Trafficking investigations

involving straw purchasers averaged a relatively small number of firearms

per investigation but collectively accounted for 26,000 guns. Firearms were

diverted by traffickers at gun shows and flea markets in 14 percent of the

investigations, and firearms stolen from FFLs, residences, and common

carriers were involved in more than a quarter of the investigations.