The skepdick recently had the opportunity to visit the Coroner’s office and witness a few autopsies. One of the unfortunate bodies being examined was a young man who had been shot and killed (yes, I do live in Chicago). This got me thinking about gun control. How did the person who shot this young man get their gun? Did they buy the gun themselves using their own FOID card? Did the shooter have a concealed carry license (CCL)? Basically, what were the chances that this shooting was perpetrated by someone using their own legally obtained gun and with a legal right to do so? If you’re like me, you probably assume the shooting was done with what we’ll call an illegal gun (i.e. the shooter did not have a CCL and was not the legal owner of the gun). Is this a fair assumption? Lets take a look at gun control in the United States and along the way we’ll find an answer to our question: what percentage of gun-related crimes are committed by people who legally possessed the gun?
Surprisingly (or maybe not), this was maddeningly difficult to answer. Crime statistics are not easy to find, and when they are they’re very inconsistent. I was hoping to write a little bit about local gun issues and spent a few hours at the Chicago police headquarters searching for gun data (information about seizures, gun traces, gun-related crimes, and CCL crime connections), but I was told the “freely” available data would cost me $2,000 to obtain and they just gave me the run-around until I finally gave up. This kind of bummed me out since the answer seems so easy: tally up all the gun-related crimes in Chicago and count how many of those were committed by people with their own legally obtained gun and count how many had the right to carry concealed. The police were friendly but had no interest in giving out that information. Luckily some of the data we’ll need to answer our question is made available online for other areas of the country.
We hear a lot about gun control in the media, but what does gun control actually mean? The media like to portray this issue, much like everything else, as a dichotomy: gun control vs. gun rights. Sound familiar? Democrats vs. Republicans, right-wing vs. left-wing, blue vs. red, Coke vs. Pepsi, Biggie vs. Tupac (okay I’m dating myself a little bit with the last one, but I’m sure they were also both killed by illegal guns).
The interesting thing about this dichotomy is that gun control proponents typically claim that without gun control we’d have more gun violence and gun rights advocates claim that without gun rights we’d have, you guessed it, more gun violence. Are they both right, or are they both wrong? Maybe they’re both right and there is no dichotomy in the first place. Maybe the answer isn’t just about restricting gun access, it’s about restricting gun access specifically for criminals. No one can be against gun control, that’s like being against stop signs and traffic lights. Gun control is about controlling everyone’s access to guns, but it should specifically favor legal access over illegal. What we have today is quite the opposite.
The gun control for dummies cartoon illustrates this point quite nicely, controlling the number of guns in the hands of non-criminals is what our current gun laws have been doing and by definition that isn’t doing anything to stop crime. In Chicago I’ve been seeing a lot of these stickers around town:
Do you think a sticker is going to stop a criminal from carrying a gun? Gun free zones or stickers on windows do nothing to prevent gun crimes and every rational person should know that criminals aren’t going to respect a sticker. That’s like trying to catch bank robbers by passing around a survey asking people if they robbed a bank and hoping they check the yes box. In 2012 a man walked into a Colorado movie theater and started shooting. It wasn’t the closest to his house, and it wasn’t the busiest. But it was the only one with stickers posted at the entrance banning handguns.
Let’s get back to our original question which may provide guidance towards better gun control legislation. First step, some gun statistics and then tracking the guns. There are an estimated 300 million guns in this country, almost one per person, putting us way ahead (or behind) the rest of the world in guns/person.
The U.S. is the 13th country on the list of most firearm-related deaths with a rate of about 10 per 100,000, but keep in mind that 6 out of those 10 are suicides. While firearm ownership certainly seems to correlate highly with suicide rates, I don’t mean to sound callous, but I’m not worried about being killed by myself. Guns definitely make suicide attempts more successful, and the data suggest we need to do a better job identifying mental illnesses and keeping guns away from those who may have suicidal thoughts. However, I’m worried about being shot by someone else, so we’ll stay focused on what our current gun control laws are doing to impact the chances of that happening: being shot by someone with a legal vs. illegal gun.
When we rank countries by gun homicide rate, the U.S. is the 15th country on the list with about 3.6 gun homicides per 100,000 people putting us second on the list of developed countries, behind South Africa which has 17 per 100,000. The rest of the developed countries and most of the rest of the world are under 1 per 100,000. The takeaway is that we have 10-30 times as many guns per person, but only 3-5 times as many gun homicides. Yeah I know you’re wondering about all the non-fatal firearm injuries, assaults, and so on. Like I said, some of this data is very difficult to come by so I’m simplifying a bit by just looking at homicides. Don’t worry, this doesn’t impact our original question very much anyway. One thing to keep in mind however is that the 300 million number includes all guns – about a third each of handguns, rifles, and shotguns – but for the rest of this article we’ll be talking strictly about handguns.
Interestingly, you’re over 3 times as likely to be accidentally poisoned to death than be shot and killed by someone else. I wonder if this includes snorting heroin when you think it’s only cocaine? I hate it when that happens.
Okay, so we’ve got a lot of guns in this country, where do they come from? Guns are quite different from drugs as far as their origins go. Most of the drugs coursing through the veins of America are smuggled across the border, for example 90% of the estimated 300 metric tons of cocaine is imported yearly from three countries: Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia. In contrast, in the United States we manufactured almost 4 million handguns in 2013 and imported another 3 million, two-thirds of which from Austria, Germany, and Brazil. Total gun imports from Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia? Zero. I guess there’s more money in the drug game. The point is that guns are legally manufactured in the U.S. and legally imported into the U.S. and this creates what’s called the primary market. All the guns come with handy-dandy serial numbers making it fairly easy to track them from purchase through to recovery by police.
Most new guns start out as new (right Yogi Berra?) and over 99% of new guns are sold legally (the other 1% are stolen, reported “destroyed”, or “lost” between the manufacturer and the retail stores). Gun control advocates want to limit everyone’s access to these new guns or eliminate them altogether. Tough to argue with the claim that where there are no guns there would be no gun violence. That’s certainly true, but it’s a pipe dream to think the U.S. is going to ban new gun sales and somehow confiscate the rest. Just not gonna happen.
If all new guns are originally sold on the primary market, how many are being sold directly to criminals, or a better way to put it, how many crimes are committed by people who legally purchased their own gun? This doesn’t make it a legal gun as we’re talking about it. The gun may have been legally purchased, but the owner needs a CCL to be legally carrying it around in public. For our discussion, remember that an illegal gun is one that is used in a crime by a person with no legal right to be carrying it (each state has its own three letter combo to describe concealed carry permits CCW, CCL, CHL, etc.). Surveys of prison inmates suggest that 15-25% of crime guns were purchased by the criminal (who wasn’t a criminal at the time) directly from a licensed retailer. This is probably the gun control advocate’s main argument for stricter gun laws. But these are still people who may have owned a gun legally, but could they carry a gun legally?
Every year, Texas publishes a list of conviction rates for concealed handgun license (CHL) holders compared to convictions for those without a CHL. In 2012, there were some 26 million people living in Texas with 17 million over the age of 21 of whom almost 600,000 had a permit to carry concealed. Thus, about 3.5% of adults had a CHL or about 2.3% of the total population. We should therefore expect to see between 2-4% of all crimes committed by people holding a CHL, right? Unfortunately crime data can’t be obtained, so we have to make do with conviction rates. What percent of convictions for gun-related offense crimes are CHL holders?
All total there were 63,272 convictions covering the full spectrum of crimes in Texas in 2012. Only 120 of those convictions were of CHL holders, yes, less than 0.2%. If we just look at weapons-involved assaults and murders we find the same rate of 0.2% (8 out of 3664). We should be seeing a conviction rate between 2-4% and we’re finding 0.2%. This indicates that CHL holders are more than 10 times less likely to be convicted of a crime and we can safely extrapolate that to mean CHL holders are more than 10 times less likely to commit a crime. So what? Maybe we shouldn’t use this data to advocate for more concealed weapons permits, but it can definitely be used to show that allowing concealed carry doesn’t support the hypothesis that more people carrying concealed causes more gun violence (clearly background checks make a difference).
What else can we take away from the Texas study regarding our original question? Looking at the weapons-involved statistics, if only 8 out of 3664 convictions were of people with a CHL, that means 3656 of the criminals were not in legal possession of a gun at the time of the conviction. That’s 99.8%. Even if we allow for some error (say an order of magnitude 80 vs. 8) in our extrapolation back to gun-related crimes, we’re still talking about 3584 gun-related crimes committed by people without a CHL, almost 98%. Bam. There we go, if we assume the Texas data is correct and applies to the country as a whole, then it’s likely less than 200 of the 10,000 yearly gun homicides in this country are perpetrated by legal guns.
Our current gun control laws don’t seem to be worth shit. If over 98% of gun-related crimes are likely to be committed using illegal guns, how the hell do we stop people from carrying guns illegally? And for those who don’t even have a right to own a gun, how the hell do we stop criminals from getting one in the first place?
The problem is in the sale of used guns, called the secondary gun market. Since almost all new guns on the street are purchased legally, this is how they end up in the hands of criminals. When a gun is recovered by police a request is sent to the ATF through the National Tracing Center to find information on the gun such as the last legal owner on record and the location of the original purchase of the gun. This information reveals three main ways criminals acquire guns: theft, straw purchases, and secondary private transfers.
There’s not much gun legislation can do to prevent criminals from stealing guns from private citizens. Theft is going to happen and unfortunately some states don’t require gun owners to report guns that are stolen. Educating gun owners on gun storage and theft prevention might help, but stopping theft is very difficult.
The second way criminals acquire guns is through straw purchases. A straw purchase is when you give your friend some money and send them to the gun store to buy a gun for you because maybe you’re a convicted felon or or you were accused of domestic violence or there’s some other factor keeping you from legally buying the gun. They pay the money, they undergo a background check, they pick up the gun, then they give it to you without, of course, recording the transfer.
The third way is a secondary private transfer, which is really just another way of saying the used gun market. The problem with used guns sales is that different states have different laws regarding the sale. Some states require the seller to conduct a background check, some don’t. Some states require a person to register a gun sale, some don’t. Transport of guns from the “lax” states to “strict” states is often just a matter of driving a few miles. The Chicago police department reports that almost 60% of guns involved in crimes in Chicago were purchased in states which don’t require a background check for secondary gun transfers.
The government funded a study which traced 989 guns seized by police in the 77th street area of L.A. These were all being used illegally, but not necessarily illegally owned, remember possessing a gun at home versus on the street are two different things. All 989 guns were seized from people who had no legal right to be carrying them in public. 737 of the guns were not in the possession of the last-known legal purchaser, but for almost half of those guns, about 342, the original purchaser lived within a 4.5 mile radius from where the gun was recovered. Also, of the 989 guns traced, 670 were purchased in California and 319 out-of-state but all were purchased from a license firearms dealer, none was purchased at an unregulated gun show. Clearly these illegal guns were obtained through straw purchases or illegal transfers.
What does this data tell us? At least 75% of the guns recovered were illegally possessed (100% were illegally possessed in public (how has Hollywood not made a movie about a possessed gun!)). In the 80’s a survey of 1,874 prison inmates were asked where they obtained the gun they used for their crime. 50% reported buying or borrowing them from a private source and 32% reported stealing the gun. The other 16% bought the gun themselves from a licensed retailer.
So what’s the solution? Because of the ease of transport across state lines, the solution must come at the federal level. A nationwide set of laws is the only way to address the secondary market (my Libertarianism isn’t happy about this). There are two different approaches to criminal gun control (the third would be banning and confiscating all guns, which isn’t going to happen). These approaches will always impact non criminal gun control but not as much as they might impact criminal gun possession. Hell, what we’re doing now certainly isn’t working.
From a supply-side standpoint we need to control the supply of guns to the secondary market. This would include closer inspections of gun retailers to make sure their records are as accurate as possible and they’ve been trained properly in the sale of firearms. Better and more thorough background checks of gun buyers with mandatory background checks of all gun buyers including private sales. This might mean that all gun sales have to be done through a licensed dealer much like how property titles are transferred when you buy a house. Stricter laws regarding the reporting of stolen guns, thereby holding someone responsible for what their gun does if they neglect to report it stolen (if people keep reporting their guns “stolen” then they could be banned from future purchases). Placing limits of how many guns people can purchase per year would dramatically cut back on straw purchases (this is the one gun rights advocates will be most upset with, but how many damn guns can you fire at once?). Limiting the purchase of ammo by amount or limit sales only to firearms owners. Invent a method of laser printing bar codes on bullets so they could more easily be traced (it’s not the guns I’m afraid of, it’s the bullets).
From the demand-side standpoint we need stricter punishment for illegal gun possession specifically for gun possession while committing a crime. We also need to find a way for people not to end up as criminals (and we need to invent pig wings too I guess). However, I’m not sure how well our criminal justice system is working as a deterrent, data suggest that when mandatory gun sentences became law they had no impact on gun violence or gun crime.
What else isn’t working that we need to change? Gun stickers are worthless.
If we can’t keep all criminals from getting guns, we must do a better job of taking them away from criminals before they can be used. We need to give the police more resources to deal with illegal guns. I wonder where can we redirect law enforcement resources from. Hmm.
Does the illegal drug market create violence, especially gun violence? If drugs became legal, would gun violence go down?
In Chicago in 2010 there were 167,000 arrests for various crimes, 42,000 of which were for narcotics violations. If drugs became decriminalized how much more police resources could they concentrate on violent crimes? What’s more harmful to other people, violence or drugs? Yes drugs are harmful, but what I mean is they aren’t directly harmful to another person. What would you rather get hit in the chest with, a 9mm bullet or a bag of weed? How much more room would there be in prisons without all the non-violent drug offenders? How much more time would our legal system have if they weren’t dealing with dealers day in and day out? How much less violence if you and your drug dealer could work it out on Judge Judy instead of getting in a fight?
What do you think the current penalties are for gun vs. drug possession?
In Illinois, illegal gun possession by itself is a Class 3 felony serving up 2-5 years in jail and a $25,000 fine. This is for illegally carrying something that you can directly use to harm other people. If you get caught carrying 11 pounds of a plant you can pick straight out of the ground, Illinois will charge you with a Class X felony and give you 6-30 years in jail and a $200,000 fine. Yep. For a plant that cannot directly or indirectly harm anyone. This has got to change. Oh, but if you get caught with the plant and a gun they tack on an additional 15 years to your sentence. I like the idea of a mandatory sentence for having a gun while committing a crime, but really? Explain how carrying around a plant is a crime.
If the police could dedicate more resources towards detecting illegal guns, it would help if police officers had a quick and unobtrusive way to easily determine if someone was carrying a gun illegally. Maybe CHL holders could be issued a special RFID chip on their gun and police had special scanning devices that could distinguish between legal and illegal guns.
It’s obvious that stickers announcing gun free zones aren’t going to keep gun toting criminals away. Is the answer to have gun monitoring devices at every entrance or exit? Is this a step towards a society filled with checkpoints and pat downs? Damn, it would be like living in the airport.
Gun control is necessary. Most crimes are committed by people who have no legal right to own a gun, and almost all gun-crimes are committed by people who have no legal right to be carrying a gun in public. But making it more difficult to buy a gun isn’t the answer. We need to make it more difficult for people to buy lots of guns, more difficult for people to buy guns for other people (straw purchases), more difficult for non-gun owners to buy ammunition, more difficult for gun dealers to sell guns to people who might be making straw purchases, more difficult for people to buy a gun without passing a background check, and, most importantly, more difficult for criminals to get their hands on a gun. Raising taxes on gun sales isn’t going to deter criminals who buy a gun for the purpose of committing a crime. It only deters the people who may buy a gun “just in case” they need it for self-defense. Higher gun purchase taxes only increases the ratio of illegal gun owners to legal. This is the opposite of what gun control should be doing.
As per our original question, it’s a pretty safe bet that any gun involved in a crime was wielded by someone who has no legal right to be carrying it. There have been concealed carry laws in the U.S. for a long time which don’t seem to be contributing towards increased gun-related crimes. For us to reduce gun violence we need to keep guns away from people who would use them criminally or, even better, convince people they don’t need to act criminally in the first place.
Life is precious and not to be thrown away. When you kill someone, you throw away their life and if you end up in jail, you’ve thrown away yours as well (although in Chicago the clearance rate for homicides is only about 1 in 3 so I guess you have a 66% chance of keeping your life). The solution doesn’t seem to prevent all people from having guns, criminals are always going to find a way to get them no matter how difficult it becomes for law-abiding citizens to buy them. The solution is keeping them out of the hands of criminals. It shouldn’t be gun control vs. gun rights, it should be about criminal gun control. Most importantly, people need to care more about life because if people don’t care about their life or anyone else’s, gun violence isn’t going to stop.
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