A new study uncovers distinct patterns in the life cycle of guns used by young people in crimes, which could help refine youth violence prevention efforts, according to a study to be published in the June 2004 Annals of Emergency Medicine (The Life Cycle of Crime Guns: A Description of Guns Recovered from Young People in California, p. 733).
Tracing records compiled by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), researchers at the UC Davis School of Medicine found in 1998, 2,121 crime guns were recovered in California from 1,717 people younger than age 25. The possessors of these guns were likely to be male (95.5 percent), and more than half (58.6 percent) were not of legal age to purchase handguns.
"Young people between ages 18 and 20 cannot purchase handguns from licensed gun dealers, but they still commit major violent crimes more frequently than anyone else," said Garen J. Wintemute, lead author of the study, professor of epidemiology and preventive medicine at the UC Davis School of Medicine and Medical Center.
Recovered crime guns were found to have life cycles from sale to use in a crime of about 6.4 years. However, the amount of time until a gun was used in a crime differed by age groups and varied substantially with gun characteristics. In particular, more than one-third of semiautomatic pistols, but less than 15 percent of rifles and revolvers, were used in a crime in less than three years from when they were sold.
"Overall, the time from a gun's sale to its use in a crime was longer in California than nationally," said Wintemute. "This may reflect state policies that interfere with the movement of guns into illegal commerce, such as prohibiting the direct transfers of guns between private parties, which is legal in many other states."
Guns were recovered from 152 California cities. Six cities that traced all recovered guns--Los Angeles, Stockton, San Diego, Compton, San Bernardino and San Jose--accounted for more than 68 percent of traced guns, and guns from these cities were more likely to be recovered from people age 18 and younger.
Researchers found crime guns recovered from people ages 21 to 24 were likely purchased by someone of the same age group; those guns recovered from people younger than age 18 were likely to be purchased by a person age 45 or older. The study also found evidence for "caliber creep:" small-caliber handguns made up 41 percent of handguns recovered from people younger than age 18, but only 25 percent of handguns recovered from people ages 21 to 24. Large-caliber semiautomatic pistols were most common when the criminal user of the handgun had purchased that gun himself.
"No matter how vigorously we [emergency physicians] treat firearm injuries, we cannot fully reverse the damage wrought by bullets," writes Arthur L. Kellermann, in his related editorial published in this issue. "Because we are already 'pushing the envelope' on what can be accomplished with post-event care, it is worth considering what can be accomplished before the next 9-1-1 call. Strategic enforcement of our existing gun laws is a good place to start."