With the rapid increase since the mid-1980s in rates of homicide and other criminal violence, crime has emerged as the nation’s leading domestic problem. One tactic for mitigating lethal violence is gun control-government regulation of the production, exchange, and use of personal firearms. A number of proposals are currently being debated at the federal, state, and local levels. Recently, Congress enacted the Brady Bill and adopted a partial ban on assault weapons, while the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) toughened sales procedures for gun dealers. A central issue in debating these and other control measures is which types of regulation are likely to be most cost-effective in reducing gun violence.
This Article concerns the secondary gun market, one of the key issues in understanding the potential effectiveness of gun control measures. The primary objective of much of the gun control effort in the United States is to discourage certain categories of people, including felons and those under indictment, from obtaining and possessing guns, while preserving ready availability of guns for everyone else. To this end, federal law bans mail order shipments to everyone except licensed dealers and requires licensed dealers to screen customers for eligibility. However, dealers are not well-regulated and used guns can be readily purchased from other sources. Both of these issues undercut the discrimination strategy for reducing gun violence. Our research is concerned with developing a better understanding of gun markets, particularly the secondary, largely unregulated markets that supply youths and criminals with a large percentage of their guns. We seek to identify promising tactics by which regulatory and law enforcement agencies may better enforce the prohibition on purchase and possession by proscribed groups.
This Article provides a summary of the existing literature on gun markets and presents a year-long data-collection effort to develop an empirical description of gun markets as they operate in the Triangle area of North Carolina. We arranged meetings with local law enforcement officers, State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) personnel, BATF officers, and ten incarcerated delinquents to learn about local gun transactions. To collect data on gun theft in the area, we surveyed law enforcement agencies, and, when necessary, visited the agencies to pull data directly from the original crime reports. We attended a gun show and observed the guns offered for sale and the characteristics of the transactions that occurred. We also collected newspaper accounts from across the country to help piece together a picture of gun markets.
When we began, we expected that state and local law enforcement agencies and the local office of the BATF could provide us with information about illicit gun markets. However, we found that no agency investigates and disrupts the local gun markets that supply youths and criminals with guns. Even a small effort in this area would be a useful beginning.
Section II of this Article provides background on gun ownership and gun use in crimes in the United States. Section III reviews the federal and state systems regulating the distribution of guns, pointing to major loopholes in these systems. Section IV details the distinction between the primary and secondary markets for firearms and discusses the linkages between them. Federally licensed firearm dealers are discussed in Section V, with examples of dealers who use their licenses to distribute guns illegally, together with an assessment of the prospects for improving the regulation of these dealers. Section VI focuses on theft as a source of guns for the illegal sector and on the redistribution of stolen guns; we also discuss possible interventions to reduce gun theft. Section VII details secondary firearm markets, where guns are bought and sold without the benefit of a licensed dealer or the paperwork that provides an official record of the transaction. Section VIII notes the extraordinary lack of intelligence data on the workings of the gun markets and suggests proposals for future research and regulation.