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So, what will actually work to reduce gun violence?

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

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.

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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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by James Hamilton on 03/08/2013 - 05:19 pm.

    While accidental deaths

    are a small piece of the pie, I’d like to see steps taken to reduce the odds of children killing themselves or other children by requiring the use of gun locks and/or safes and imposing civil and criminal penalties on those whose failure to comply results in injury or death. It might also help reduce the number of ‘crimes of passion’ committed with handguns.

    I know that enthusiasts will argue that any time lost in bringing a gun to bear puts them at danger. But then, how many people were killed last year during home invasions? If I recall correctly, just under 1,000 people died in accidental shootings.

    As the author points out, no single measure will eliminate all gun deaths from any cause. No measure should be rejected on that basis.

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/08/2013 - 08:58 pm.

    The bottom line is that most gun deaths are either murders by other members of the household or suicides. Most are not by criminals. Most are by handgun.
    So, while it would certainly be good to reduce the availability of semiautomatic weapons and the possession of guns by criminals, it would have little effect on the overall rate of gun violence. It would reduce the number of mass killings that get the most publicity while ignoring the real problem.
    We have to find a way to change the American culture of the gun; the idea that everyone should own guns and that guns are the solution rather than the problem. Otherwise the carnage will continue.
    And no, it hasn’t always been this way. See the excellent history by
    _Carl T. Bogus
    _University of California at Davis Law Review
    _31 (1998): 309

    When the Second Amendment was written, most Americans did NOT own guns.

    • Submitted by myles spicer on 03/09/2013 - 05:42 pm.


      And as I concluded in my Community Voices piece of Jan 8, as long as the NRA has the cover of the Second Amendment, very little progress can be made on reducing gun ownership — and gun violence.

      Sadly, it is highly unlikely that this ridiculous amendment that is a couple hundred years out of date and totally inappropriate for urban life in the 21st century can be repealed and/or replaced by something more relevant to life in America today.

  3. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 03/09/2013 - 08:44 am.

    The bottom line

    Mr. Brandon nails it, The theoretical catch 22, if you think you need a gun you don’t, therefore to buy a gun when you don’t need one indicates you are a little touched, i.e. touched people should not own guns, but are the ones that buy them, ergo: most gun owners are touched, which is the root of the problem. “Gun craziness”

  4. Submitted by Kenneth Kjer on 03/10/2013 - 10:44 am.

    James Densley

    “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.” He has just proven by that statement that he knows absolutely nothing about guns. I was in law enforcement for over 21 years, the last 7 as an investigator for the State of WI. There was and still is a huge amount of gun smuggling of stolen guns from Central Wisconsin to Minneapolis. All by gang members. So far this year there have been over 100 guns stolen in Central WI this year alone and just this last week there an article about law enforcement concern over stolen guns in the Wausau Daily Herald. I reported to legislators several times and never got a single response. The theft of a large amount of guns in Tomahawk, WI, in January, resulted in a gang member being arrested in Eau Claire after he shot one person, but only one gun was recovered and that was the one used in the shooting. U.S. Marines and civilians at Camp Lejeune, N.C., stole and sold approximately $2 million in guns and combat equipment to streets gangs. Over 60 people were implicated in the theft. The stolen guns and combat gear included assault rifles, night-vision goggles and high tech flashlights that cost the government over 800 dollars a piece. The case is still open. This is the type of activity that is completely ignored but the state legislators, if they even know about them. They are so bent on individual citizens gun that they completely ignore anything else.

  5. Submitted by Rosalind Kohls on 03/10/2013 - 01:37 pm.

    Enforce the laws we already have

    Take the man from Watertown/Delano, for example, who had killed his mother. If he had killed his mother, why was he out of jail or a mental institution, and free in the community to stockpile 15 guns? We can reduce gun violence by enforcing laws we already have.

  6. Submitted by Pat Thompson on 03/10/2013 - 01:57 pm.

    The loop hole

    A US Senator from Alaska (a Democrat, not Lisa Murkowski) said this morning on NPR that it’s already illegal federally for anyone to sell even one gun for the purpose of profit, whether at a gun show or not. (As opposed to a person selling a gun to a friend or relative just to transfer ownership.)

    Is this true? If so, then why doesn’t the ATF enforce this at gun shows?

    Is it because the ATF is hamstrung by the NRA? Underfunded? What?

    Or is this one of those legalistic examples that are big enough to drive the proverbial truck through?

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/11/2013 - 10:55 am.

    Gun laws

    Here’s the problem with enforcing existing gun laws:

    1) Resources. Most of these laws were written either entirely by the NRA or with considerable influence from the NRA or the gun lobby. Consequently they are designed basically to fail. You could see this in congress a few weeks ago when a Sheriff from somewhere was testifying, he was asked why he wasn’t tracking down all people who’d already purchased guns illegally by lying on their applications. He simply pointed out that his job is to chase criminals, not paperwork. Law enforcement can’t pull officers off the streets to chase down thousands of applications and everyone knows it. So you make a paperwork law and then complain when its not enforced.

    2) Loopholes galore: Yes, there are thousands of gun laws currently on the books, they have more holes in them leaky strainer, and they’re designed that way. Again, look at how these laws got written and by whom.

    3) Too many laws. Again, this is not accident, yeah we got thousands of laws pertaining to guns, federal, state, and local, yet we still don’t have durable databases, universal background checks, or even licenses. We planted so many trees it’s impossible to see the forest. Law enforcement long ago realized where it’s resources need to go, and it’s NOT focused on hundreds of gun laws. And these laws are constantly changing. On paper it looks we have a lot of regulation and control, but in real world of prosecution and law enforcement many of these laws are almost irrelevant. It’s not an accident because the biggest players in making these laws are trying to prevent any kind of gun control whatsoever.

  8. Submitted by jody rooney on 03/11/2013 - 12:56 pm.

    This is perhaps the most thoughtful article I have read on the


    This looks like an excellent starting place. Why not take it from here?

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