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Firearms and Violence: A Critical Review
inmates and 73 percent of the high school students who acquired their guns from a retail outlet paid more than $100, while only 30 percent of the juvenile inmates and 17 percent of the high school students who acquired their most recent gun from an informal or street source paid more than $100 (Sheley and Wright, 1995:49). We do not know whether this is driven by differences in the quality of the guns purchased or in the costs of distribution in the two sectors.
There are three main types of evidence on the origins of guns for criminals and juveniles: survey research, BATF firearms trace data, and BATF firearms investigation data. Each provides different insights into the means by which offenders acquire firearms.
A number of inmate surveys have documented the wide variety of sources of guns available to criminals and youth. Table 4-1 summarizes some of the basic findings from three of the most widely cited of these surveys. Precise patterns are sometimes difficult to discern because different definitions and questions are used to elicit similar information. Nevertheless, survey research has documented a wide variety of sources of guns and methods of firearm acquisition used by criminals and youth. Guns referenced in these surveys come from a variety of sources, including family members, friends, the black market, and direct theft.
Wright and Rossi’s (1994) 1992 survey of 1,874 convicted felons serving time in 11 prisons in 10 states throughout the United States, for example, revealed a complex market of both formal and informal transactions, cash and noncash exchange, and new and used handguns. Felons reported acquiring a majority of their guns from nonretail, informal sources. Only 21 percent of the respondents obtained the handgun from a retail outlet, with other sources including family and friends (44 percent) and the street (that is, the black market), drug dealers, and fences (26 percent). Moreover, the majority of handguns were not purchased with cash. Of the surveyed felons, 43 percent acquired their most recent handgun through a cash purchase, while 32 percent stole their most recent handgun. The remainder acquired their most recent handgun by renting or borrowing it, as a gift, or through a trade. Finally, almost two-thirds of the most recent handguns acquired by felons were reported as used guns, and one-third were reported as new guns. Illicit firearms markets dealt primarily in secondhand guns and constituted largely an in-state, rather than out-of-state, market.