For handguns sold by licensed dealers in California in 1996, several specific factors predicted a greater likelihood that a handgun would be later recovered by police within three years of its sale and that the gun’s purchaser and its possessor at the time of its recovery would not be the same person. Multiple-purchase handguns bought on the same day with others were at greater risk of being traced than were single-purchase handguns. This was not true for multiple purchase handguns bought over a period of up to 30 days. Gun traffickers may purchase several guns at once, on the same day, to maximize operational efficiency.
Handguns purchased by individuals who bought multiple similar guns were 58% more likely to be used in crime than were handguns purchased by individuals who purchased only one handgun in 1996. This is a substantial difference. A case from our data illustrates the point: One purchaser bought 100 handguns in three transactions (two same-day multiple purchases and one single purchase). All handguns were Lorcin 9 mm pistols, costing $150 or less when purchased new. Nine of these handguns were traced by ATF within three years following purchase; another 10 appeared in a separate California database of guns recovered and held as evidence.
identified an increase in risk of tracing for multiple-purchase handguns, irrespective of the timing of the multiple purchase, in the first two years following purchase. Our study considered additional factors relating to the retailer and the purchaser, and one year of sales data with a three-year follow-up. These variations may explain the differences between the two studies. Webster and colleagues have recently shown that one-gun-a-month statutes are not associated with less intrastate gun trafficking.19
Studies in other jurisdictions would be useful in identifying subsets of multiple-purchase handgun transactions that are disproportionately associated with guns that are later used in crime.
Several of the factors we associated with handguns’ risk for being traced have been identified previously. These include a low selling price,20,21
a female purchaser,5
a younger buyer,4,5
and a high percentage of denied sales and sales volume for the retailer.5,13
Others of our findings have not previously been reported. Risk for being traced was nearly twice as great for handguns sold by retailers licensed as manufacturers and importers as for those sold by gun dealers. We conducted a post hoc analysis of trace completion rates by retailer type to investigate the possibility that some traced handguns were linked to these firms only because the retailer actually selling the gun had not been identified. Completion rates were the same for traces for all three categories of retailers. Some of those licensed as manufacturers or importers have been the subject of site visits conducted by one of the authors for another study,13
and all of these were functioning as retail sellers. This remains a subject for further investigation.
Our findings are subject to several limitations. We used a handgun’s appearance in ATF’s trace records, a proxy for use in crime, as our measure of outcome. To help focus our findings on activities associated with gun trafficking, we defined outcome events restrictively as traces occurring within three years of purchase and involving purchasers and possessors who were different people. ATF estimates the median time from sales to trace is nearly twice as long,4
and our results should not be generalized to the larger population of recovered crime guns. Studies of that larger population have yielded similar results, however.3,10
Handgun sales records did not include the selling price or distinguish new from used guns. Our classification of guns as to cost was necessarily based on their selling price as new guns. We were not able to identify handguns that were sold used at much less than their original price, resulting in misclassification of some inexpensive guns as expensive.
The handguns in this study were purchased nearly 13 years ago. However, recent tracing data are not available, and it is unlikely that gun markets have changed substantially since that time. Four states—California, Maryland, Virginia, and New Jersey—now restrict handgun purchases to no more than one within a 30-day period. The remaining states do not limit the number of guns that can be purchased at one time; our findings likely reflect the current situation in those states.
Legitimate gun collectors may also buy many guns over the course of a year, and California’s handgun sales records do not differentiate these purchasers from others. Our uniformity variable was devised in part in the belief that collectors would be less likely than purchasers for gun trafficking operations to buy many essentially identical handguns at once, but this belief has never been empirically tested. The mixed results that we and Koper have obtained may be due in part to an inability to distinguish multiple purchases by legitimate collectors from other multiple purchases.
Our findings provide some specific directions for future intervention and research. Handguns that are bought on the same day with others, are inexpensive, are purchased by young people or women, are acquired in purchases that involve multiple identical guns, or are sold by retailers whose clienteles include a disproportionate number of persons with significant criminal histories appear to be more likely than others to be used in crime. Law enforcement agencies and policymakers may wish to take such patterns into account in designing future monitoring and intervention programs and violence prevention policies. For example, some local and state law enforcement agencies have units that combat illegal gun sales and rely upon the same type of data used in this study—archives of handgun sales records and ATF traces of crime guns. ATF requires licensed retailers to report the sale of multiple handguns to the same individual within five business days, and these reports are already used to develop leads for gun trafficking investigations. Our findings should help these units to consider which of the thousands of crime gun traces to follow up with an investigation of possible trafficking.
Our findings are relevant to potential legislative initiatives as well. A ban on the sale of low-quality (and therefore inexpensive), highly concealable handguns, for example, has been associated with a decrease in firearm homicides.21
In addition, a large gun dealer’s voluntary decision to discontinue sales of these low-quality handguns led to a dramatic reduction in the rate at which guns sold by that dealer were diverted to the criminal market.22
Future research efforts should examine further the relationship between multiple-gun purchases, particularly guns bought on the same day, and risk for use in crime, and should seek data directly from persons involved in illegal gun commerce.