Supply

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The factors affecting the supply of firearms to offenders are comparably

numerous. Guns used in crimes (crime guns) are obtained both from the

existing stock in private hands (purchase in secondhand markets, theft,

gifts) and from new production (sales by and thefts from FFLs, wholesalers,

or manufacturers). In the aggregate these sources can be thought of as

constituting a supply system; a higher money price will generate more guns

for sale to high-risk individuals. Supply side interventions aim to shift the

supply curve up, so that fewer guns are available at any given money price.

It may be useful to conceptualize each supply curve as independently

determined. The factors that affect the costs of providing firearms through

thefts (whether from households or stores) are likely to be distinct from

those affecting provision of the same weapons through straw purchases.

Raising penalties for stealing guns or expanding the burglary squad will

raise the risk compensation (i.e., price) needed to induce burglars to undertake

a given volume of gun theft. Those same measures are unlikely to have

much effect on the risks faced in straw purchase transactions, which will be

raised for example by tougher enforcement of FFL record-keeping requirements.

While we will refer to a single supply curve for firearms to offenders,

it is the sum of a number of components.

Markets may also be places; that is the guiding principle of much

antidrug policing, since there are specific locations at which many sales

occur on a continuing basis. It is unclear whether places are important for

gun acquisition. Gun purchases are very rare events when compared with

drug purchases; a few per year versus a few per week for those most active

in the market (Koper and Reuter, 1996). The low frequency of gun purchases

has two opposing effects. On one hand, it reduces the attraction to a

seller of being in a specific place, since there will be a long period with no

purchases but with potential police attention. On the other hand, buyers

are less likely to be well informed because of the low rate of purchase and

may be willing to pay a substantial price premium to obtain a gun more

rapidly, thus increasing the value of operating in a location that is known to

be rich in firearms acquisition opportunities.

Gun shows are potential specific places where criminals acquire guns.

Gun shows may be especially attractive venues for the illegal diversion of

firearms due to the large number of shows per year, the size of the shows,

the large volume of transactions, and the advertising and promotion of

these events. Gun shows provide a venue for large numbers of secondary

market sales by unlicensed dealers; they are exempted from the federal

transaction requirements that apply to licensed dealers who also are vendors

at these events. The Police Foundation (1996) estimated, from the

National Survey of Private Gun Ownership, that gun shows were the place

of acquisition of 3.9 percent of all guns and 4.5 percent of handguns. The

1991 BJS survey of state prison inmates suggests that less than 1 percent of

handgun using inmates personally acquired their firearm at a gun show

(Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1993). However, these data did not determine

whether a friend, family member, or street dealer purchased the gun for the

inmate at a gun show. While it is not known what proportion of crime guns

come from gun shows or what proportion of gun show dealers act criminally,

research suggests that criminals do illegally acquire guns at these

venues through unlicensed dealers, corrupt licensed dealers, and straw purchasers

(Braga and Kennedy, 2000). Certain states specifically regulate

firearms sales at gun shows; otherwise, there have been no systematic attempts

to implement place-based interventions to disrupt illegal transactions

at gun shows.

Note that the market is partly a metaphor. For example, many guns are

acquired through nonmarket activities, gifts or loans from friends with no

expectation of a specific payment in return. These may take place “in the

shadow” of the market, so that the terms are influenced by the costs of

acquiring guns in formal transactions; when guns are more expensive to

acquire in the market, owners are more reluctant to lend them. However

there is no empirical basis for assessing how close these links are. An

additional complication is that guns are highly differentiated and there is no

single price. No agency or researcher has systematically collected price data

over a sufficient length of time to determine the correlation of prices across

gun types over time and thus whether they are appropriately treated as a

single market or even a set of linked markets.

Using the Framework

One value of this approach (demand, supply, and substitution) is in

developing intermediate measures of whether an intervention might influence

the desired outcome. For example, intensified police enforcement

against sellers in the informal market (through “buy-and-bust” stings),

even though affecting the firearms market for offenders, may not be a large

enough intervention to produce detectable changes in the levels of either

violent crimes or violent crimes with firearms, given the noisiness of these

time series and lags in final effects. However, if this enforcement has not

affected the money price or the difficulty of acquisition in the secondary

market, then it almost certainly has not had the intended effects; thus a cost

measure provides a one-sided test. The ADAM (Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring)

data system provided a potential source of such data at the local

level.

Table 4-3 presents a list of hypothesized effects of the major interventions

discussed in this chapter. This is more in the nature of a heuristic than

a precise classification or prediction. It distinguishes between the two classes

of markets and the two forms of acquisition cost (monetary and nonmonetary)

in each market. Note again that the principal market for offenders is

conceptualized as illegal diversions from retail outlets, such as convicted

felons personally lying and buying or using false identification to acquire

guns, straw purchasers illegally diverting legally purchased guns, and corrupt

licensed dealers falsifying transaction paperwork or making off-thebook

sales. The secondary market includes all other informal firearms transfers,

such as direct theft, purchases of stolen guns from others, loans or gifts

from friends and families, and unregulated sales among private sellers.

TABLE 4-3 Intermediate Effects of Market Interventions

Outcomes

Primary Market for Offenders Secondary Market for Offenders

Acquisition Acquisition

Price Difficulty Price Difficulty

Intervention

Regulating + +

federal firearms

licensees

Limiting gun + +

sales

Screening gun +

buyers

Buy-back +

programs

Sell and bust – +

Buy and bust + +

NOTE: In cells with no entry, we assume no discernible effect.