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Spotting gun dealers gone bad


“These retailers may function as ‘bad guy magnets,’ attracting gun buyers who are at high risk of acquiring guns for criminal purposes,” says lead investigator Garen Wintemute.

UC DAVIS (US)—Licensed handgun retailers who sell crime guns more frequently than expected have distinguishing characteristics that can be identified using existing records collected at the federal level.

That finding comes from a University of California, Davis, study—published in the October issue of the journal Injury Prevention—that suggests screening and focused law enforcement could help disrupt illegal gun commerce without unduly affecting the legitimate gun market.

“Nationwide, 1.2 percent of licensed gun retailers sell 57 percent of guns that are later used in crime,” says Garen Wintemute, professor of emergency medicine at UC Davis School of Medicine and lead investigator of the study. “Our study found that licensed handgun retailers who sell crime guns more frequently than expected have a number of factors in common. When compared to other licensed retailers, they are more likely to sell inexpensive handguns, to be pawnbrokers, to be located in central urban areas, and to be patronized by would-be gun buyers whose purchases are denied when they are found to be prohibited from owning guns.”

Of particular importance was a retailer’s percentage of handgun-purchase denials. For every percentage point increase in handgun-purchase denial rate, Wintemute found the odds that a retailer would be linked to disproportionate sales of crime guns more than doubled.

“These retailers may function as ‘bad guy magnets,’ attracting gun buyers who are at high risk of acquiring guns for criminal purposes,” he says. “Though their sales to prohibited persons are denied by the Department of Justice, such retailers may be selling guns to persons whose criminal records do not disqualify them from purchasing guns, or to surrogate ‘straw’ purchasers who are buying guns for others who cannot pass a background check. Frequent sales to such high-risk purchasers could link a retailer to many crime guns.”

Wintemute found that the correlation between handgun denial rate and the sale of guns eventually used in crime remained relevant even when all other important factors, such as general socioeconomic environment and local law enforcement policies on tracing the ownership of recovered crime guns, were taken into account.

For the study, the research team collected information on the 60 retailers in California whose sales of crime guns during 1998-2003 were significantly greater than predicted by the total number of handguns they sold, and on a comparison group of 240 others. All retailers sold at least 50 handguns per year.

Wintemute visited each accessible retailer for about 15 minutes to collect additional information on the retailer’s facility and business practices and the local surroundings. (The purpose of the visits was not disclosed, so that the data collected would not be affected by the visits themselves, and a minor purchase was made in most cases.)

Unexpectedly, adding the information gathered on site to the data assembled from existing sales and gun-tracing records did little to help distinguish between the two groups of retailers. Nor did extensive information on the communities in which the retailers were located. This suggests, Wintemute believes, that denied sales may be an inexpensive and effective screening tool to identify retailers that are important sources of crime guns.

“It should already be possible for federal authorities to produce tabulations for individual retailers of denials and of requests for background checks, a proxy for gun sales,” he says.

Primary funding for the study was provided by the National Institute of Justice. Additional funding was provided by The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, and the Eli and Edythe L. Broad Foundation.

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