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So, what will actually work to reduce gun violence?

The real problem is the 40% of gun transactions that occur in the illegal “secondary market”; the vast majority of weapons in this market are handguns.

The vast majority of guns used in crimes are handguns.
REUTERS/Ralph Freso

Last week I wrote about the failure of zero tolerance policies in schools and the dangers of arming teachers in the classrooms. The response was overwhelming — I’ve received emails from friends, colleagues and strangers thanking me for wading into the dangerous waters of gun control. But a recurring question has been: What do I think will actually work to reduce gun violence generally? As the Senate Judiciary Committee hears evidence on a ban of various “military-style” weapons and Minnesota lawmakers switch to an alternative gun plan targeting “straw purchases” and “illegal gun owners” in lieu of expanding background checks, it seems the time is now to respond.

James Densley
Photo by Amber Procaccini
James Densley

First and foremost, purchases from Federal Firearms Licensees account for only about 60 percent of gun sales, and the “straw purchases” the media has given so much attention to — when the actual gun buyer uses another person to complete the purchase and fill out the paperwork — account for only a fraction of these.

The real problem is the remaining 40 percent of gun transactions that occur in the illegal “secondary market,” which includes gun brokers who a) sell guns directly; b) find customers for gun dealers who sell off the books; and c) match sellers with gun buyers in backstreet gun shows.

On the streets, everybody knows somebody from whom they can beg, borrow or steal a gun. But the good news is it costs more and takes longer to get guns in the underground market compared to the legitimate market, which suggests gun regulations do make a difference. Indeed, when gang members and other street criminals in close proximity claim access to guns they are often referring to the same shared weapons, which they lease from a common source. People you would not expect to be allies can use one single gun in a given neighborhood, which may be linked to multiple offences.

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The vast majority of these guns, however, are handguns, not AR-15 assault rifles. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, 69 percent of all gun murders in 2011 were committed with a handgun. Thus, while banning high-capacity magazines would affect the number of bullets loaded into a semi-automatic handgun, this and an assault-weapons ban would have no direct effect on the availability of the criminals’ actual weapon of choice.

Two places to start

Which prompts this question: What measures palatable to legislators will actually work to reduce the proliferation of illegal handguns on the streets? Universal background checks — meaning private sellers must verify eligibility through a licensed gun dealer — and limiting the number of firearms anyone other than a licensed dealer can purchase over the course of a month would be steps in reducing access to guns by those likely to use them criminally. But these must be enacted federally, because laws passed in isolation limiting the number of guns that an individual may purchase during a specific time period may simply compel straw purchasers to travel to another nearby state or jurisdiction with less restrictive laws — Wisconsin, for example.

Improving the gun-registration system so that guns used in crimes and confiscated by the police can be more reliably traced back to their most recent legal sale would equally help identify problem gun dealers. Dealers knowingly involved and willing to disguise illegal transactions by falsifying a record of sale or reporting a gun as stolen when it is not account for less than 10 percent of gun trafficking investigations conducted by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives but more than 50 percent of all guns diverted to prohibited users. Focusing compliance inspections on dealers who have been uncooperative in response to trace requests and/or dealers who have multiple gun crimes traced to them would begin to dismantle the secondary market.

Intensive patrols in high-violence areas

Intensive police patrols directed against illicit gun carrying in high-violence neighborhoods are the next step in dealing with the secondary market. When homicide victims are found outdoors we can infer homicide offenders are carrying guns in public. But if criminals know their chances of getting caught red-handed are high, they will be forced to change their gun-carrying behaviors.

Buy-and-bust operations or incentives for arrestees to provide information about buyers and sellers in the illegal gun market, moreover, may prove more effective than similar efforts directed at the illegal drug market. That’s because guns, unlike drugs, are durable goods, which means market transactions are lower and the risks of exchange are higher. Law enforcement can also analyze the ballistic signatures on bullets and cartridges left at crime scenes to better match confiscated guns to crimes, or to match violent events with each other.

At the same time, we need to change attitudes toward gun carrying. Criminals often procure guns from friends and family members. Just as we now accept that friends don’t let friends drive drunk, I concur with “rogue” sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh that we need a national public-heath campaign, such as the one launched recently in my native Britain. It instills the message that friends who supply or store guns for others are equally culpable for the crimes committed with those guns.

Substantial rewards for information would help

States must also offer substantial rewards for information leading to the arrest of people carrying or possessing a gun illegally and institute a gun-emphasis policy in investigations and prosecutions of violent crimes.

Gun violence is a complex issue, but inaction comes at a price. While the above measures don’t constitute a magic bullet, they are at least aimed in the right direction.

James Densley is an assistant professor in the School of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice at Metropolitan State University. He is the author of “How Gangs Work: An Ethnography of Youth Violence” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). Densley holds a doctorate from the University of Oxford.


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