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Seven new evidence-based studies on gun crime reveal the importance of understanding and stopping illegal transactions that arm dangerous offenders.

New York, NY — Each year, gun homicides kill over ten thousand people in the United States. Most of these deaths are not the result of mass shootings, but rather, of more mundane attacks, including armed robberies and assaults. The latest issue of RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences offers new empirical research on the underground gun market that supplies firearms to criminals. These studies shed important light on little-understood supply chains and provide a rich foundation for new policies to curb gun violence.

While most guns are initially purchased legally, many enter the underground market and end up in the hands of dangerous offenders, such as gang members and convicted felons. These seven articles, edited by public policy scholars Philip J. Cook (Duke University) and Harold A. Pollack (University of Chicago), examine in depth the markets for guns, both legal and illegal. Leading researchers on gun violence draw from new datasets and interviews with inmates to reveal how offenders obtain their guns.

The studies in the issue review trends in gun ownership across the nation and explore the effects of gun regulations and legislation on illegal supply chains. Some of their findings include:

Today there are almost 270 million guns in private circulation in the US, owned by 55 million adults.

gun with bullet casings
More in The Atlantic: ​​​​​Why Investors Bet on Gun Sales After a Mass Shooting

While most of these current owners will not use their guns to commit crimes, the sheer number of guns in the US forms a large reservoir from which criminals can acquire guns.

Criminals most commonly obtain their guns by buying them off the street.

Using firearm trace data and interviews with inmates in three states, researchers find that the majority of individuals convicted of crimes involving guns purchased their weapon through the underground market, rather than from a gun store or gun show.

However, laws designed to regulate legal gun sales also significantly affect the underground market.

Laws that require handgun purchasers to obtain a license can reduce criminals' access to guns.

After Maryland's passage of the Firearm and Safety act in 2013, 41 percent of surveyed parolees in the state reported that it was more difficult to obtain a handgun due to increased cost, lack of trusted sources, or people being less willing to buy handguns on their behalf.

Laws that restrict firearms buyers to one gun per month can reduce illegal sales of guns.

A study of over three decades of data on handguns recovered in Boston shows that fewer guns are illegally obtained from states that adopt legislation restricting buyers to one gun per month.


About the editors

Philip J. Cook is ITT/Terry Sanford Professor of Public Policy and professor of economics and sociology at the Sanford School of Public Policy, Duke University. Harold A. Pollack is Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Services Administration, University of Chicago.

About RSF

RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences is a peer-reviewed, open-access journal of original empirical research by both established and emerging scholars. It is designed to promote cross-disciplinary collaborations on timely issues of interest to academics, policymakers, and the public at large. Each issue is thematic in nature and focuses on a specific research question or area of interest. 

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