Sam Bieler is a research assistant in the Justice Policy Center of the Urban Institute.
The short answer: We don't know.
"Criminals will always get guns."
It’s a common refrain in America’s firearm violence prevention debate, all the more worrying because of its apparent truth. In spite of the best efforts of police and policymakers, gun violence exacts a heavy toll on the American people: 8,855 murders and 142,568 aggravated assaults committed with firearms in 2012 alone.
In the face of these sobering numbers, it's worth asking how criminals, poorer and less educated than the average American, keep getting guns. The embarrassing answer? We don't know for sure. Until we know more about the sources of crime guns, it will be difficult to devise and build consensus for effective, targeted policies that reduce unlawful access to firearms.
That's not to say we're flying blind. We know that criminals primarily get their guns from corrupt firearm dealers, gangs and social networks, and theft. What we don’t know is how important each of these sources is to the criminal gun
Some researchers have suggested that gun retailers divert a relatively low volume of weapons, while others have found them to be a major source. Moreover, the volume of dealer-supplied guns may swing dramatically. One study found that over the course of six years, the share of criminals getting weapons from dealers declined from 21 percent to 14 percent.
Gangs and networks of families and friends are a frequently cited source of guns, but research on the scope is unclear. Gangs in particular have actually been found to suppress the gun trade in their neighborhood to preserve their monopoly on violence and to avoid the police attention that comes from gun use. The role of friends and family is even murkier. Research has put their role as a supply source at 30 to 40 percent of crime guns, but little is known about the composition of this nebulous “friends and family” category.
Anywhere from 200,000 to 500,000 guns are stolen annually. Some of these will be used in criminal acts, but others will be given to friends, sent abroad, or routed back to the legal market through sales to pawnshops and retail gun dealers. Because of the limitations of ATF tracing data, determining how many crime guns came from theft remains a challenge.
If we can determine which source is the most important, lawmakers can design policies to help keep weapons out of criminals’ hands.
If dealers are the key source, policymakers and law enforcement should focus on the one percent whose weapons disproportionately show up in the hands of criminals. Currently, Congressional restrictions prevent effective enforcement action against dealers, but if they are proven to be a top resource for criminals, we can devote more resources to catching corrupt dealers while respecting the business of legitimate retailers.
If gangs and social networks are the key source of guns, police can focus on more gang intervention programs like Operation Ceasefire – aggressive policing action against gangs who resort to firearm violence, and targeted service outreach to the small segment of those who participate most frequently in gun violence.
If theft is the key crime gun source, we need to identify ways to help firearm owners secure their weapons. Gun theft prevention is deeply under-researched, so new insights will be needed to explore effective strategies. Options might include tax credits to encourage buying gun safes, improvement of smart gun technology like biometric or RFID locks, or safe storage laws that require the use of effective theft prevention devices. (Current safe storage laws are designed to restrict access to children, not criminals.)
In short, the policy implications of criminals' weapons sources are immense—and present opportunities for stemming the flow of criminal weapons, which could reduce firearms violence without inhibiting the rights of law-abiding gun owners.
That said, if we are to develop and implement new strategies to keep guns out of the hands of criminals, we need more research on how they got those guns in the first place.
Top image: Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca tosses a pistol onto a pile of guns to be melted at the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department's 20th annual Gun Melt at the Gerdau Steel Mill in Rancho Cucamonga, California. (David McNew/Reuters)
This post originally appeared on the Urban Institute's Metrotrends blog, an Atlantic partner site.