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Where Do Criminals Get Their Guns?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

The anti-gun people want to limit law-abiding citizens from getting guns and now ammunition.  The pro-gun people repeat over and over again “If you out law guns, only outlaws will have guns.”  They evidence that by activities that occur in European countries or that mass shootings typically occur in gun-restricted areas in the U.S.  What is the truth?  Where do criminals get their guns?


Surprisingly, there is no federal database or statewide databases that track these actions.  This is despite the fact they often recover guns from crime scenes or subsequent arrests of the offending party.  If the gun has a serial number, it can be traced to the federal database.  If the serial number is ground off, one can assume the gun was acquired illegally.  The studies done would be more comprehensive if guns left at the scenes of crimes or used by criminals killed in the process of committing a crime were included in the surveys to provide a more comprehensive picture.

I contacted Dr. Philip Cook, a professor of public policy at Duke University.  I called his office on a Friday afternoon in July and was shocked to have the professor pick up his phone.  He was quite cooperative and informed me he had been working the issue of criminals and their guns for 40 years, which seems to qualify him as an expert -- maybe the expert in the country.  I had obtained his name from a column I found on the internet, but the good doctor promptly forwarded to me a study he released in April 2015 that he co-wrote with Susan T. Parker. researcher and Harold A. Pollack, professor of public policy at the University of Chicago.   Their study focused on criminals imprisoned in Cook County (Chicago) Jail.


The study starts by referring to other studies done and then moved on to their study.  The authors made this statement about acquisition of guns: “Adults who are entitled to possess a gun are more likely than not to buy from an FFL (Federal Firearm Licensee).  On the other hand, those who are disqualified by age or criminal history are most likely to obtain their guns in off-the-books transactions, often from social connections such as family and acquaintances, or from “street” sources such as illicit brokers or drug dealers.”  They also made a statement early on that Chicago PD was doing effective enforcement, but “without enforcement, regulations are bound to be ineffective.”

For those who are pro-gun it would seem to be game over for their adversaries. The NRA has argued for a long-time that the problem is not needing new laws, but that the laws on the books are not strictly enforced.  Example #1 was after the San Bernardino shooting that Kamala Harris, California Attorney General, did not arrest Enrique Marquez Jr., the friend of the mass murderers Farook and Malik, who provided the guns through a straw purchase to the two killers.  Harris was too busy on the East Coast raising money for her U.S. Senate campaign to enforce the law against straw purchases that exists in California.  It took two weeks for Marquez to be arrested and he was charged with federal crimes, but should have been held immediately for breaking California law.


The law against straw purchases should be expanded to every state.  The only proviso is that many Americans -- especially in rural areas where hunting and gun use is more prevalent -- are concerned that the long guns they buy for their children will be caught up in that law.  This is a low-risk situation for law enforcement.  Whoever buys a gun from an FFL should be the designated user of the gun. Any transfer of a gun should be done through an FFL.

The Cook survey included 138 inmates that had used a gun in the commission of a crime of which 99 were actually interviewed. 

Two side issues were found to be illuminating.  As covered in last week’s column, few of the criminals they interviewed used what the authors referred to as assault weapons (AK-47).  They stated, “As has frequently been reported, assault weapons play only a small role in everyday crime.”  The authors also observed that the prisoners “demonstrated little knowledge of firearms.”  The prisoners “demonstrated ignorance of the manner in which firearms function, the ammunition requirements and the capabilities of their weapon of choice.”  In my experience you would find little, if any, of those characteristics in legal gun owners. 

In the survey, the authors found that only 3% of the prisoners obtained their gun from an FFL.  The guns they did acquire were through existing family, acquaintances or the black market.  The prisoners did express they were cautious about buying guns from unknown third parties because of fear of the gun seller being an undercover cop.  No one said criminals are always stupid. 


The California Initiative on the November ballot cutely named “Safety for All” requires gun owners to report if their guns are stolen.  The survey refutes this as an issue stating it was “rare for the criminals to steal their guns.”  I have come to the conclusion this new requirement is another affront to legal owners of guns.  If they do not timely report their missing gun(s) and they are then used in the commission of a crime, the gun owner will be sued by someone from Big Law.  It is just another way to create liability for law-abiding citizens.  Of course, those who have ill intent will either not report their missing gun or report it after they have actually provided it to a criminal. 

Another fallacy that is disabused in this survey (which states it follows in a long line of other surveys) is that more background checks will change anything in terms of how criminals get guns.  Since they typically do not walk into an FFL making background checks more demanding, is not going to decrease the use of guns in crimes.  For ordinary citizens, they must and do comply with the gun laws no matter how they acquire their guns. 

As I stated previously, it appears to me the anti-gun people are creating laws to restrict the activities of law-abiding citizens.  That is because to stop the activities of criminals would be real work as opposed to law-abiding citizens who they can oppress with new laws because by definition they “follow the law.”


This survey almost completely validates that nearly all of the proposals coming from anti-gun people will do little to stop the criminals.  

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