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Violence Prevention Research Program

Violence Prevention Research Program

California's Guns and Crime: New Evidence

A report from the Violence Prevention Research Program University of California, Davis

May, 1997

The Violence Prevention Research Program is located at the University of California, Davis Its work addresses the causes, nature, and prevention of violence.

Data for this report were originally collected for other studies of predictors of criminal behavior and the effectiveness of violence prevention policies. Those studies were funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Grant No. R49CCR/908815). Data were provided by the California Department of Justice. The analysis for and writing of this report was supported in part by a grant from The California Wellness Foundation (Grant No. 94-17). The contents of this report are solely the responsibility of VPRP and do not necessarily represent the official views of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the California Department of Justice, or The California Wellness Foundation.

The analysis for and writing of this report were performed by Garen Wintemute, MD, MPH. Data were collected by Barbara Claire, Jason Baker, Melissa Garcia, Kevin Grassel, Vanessa McHenry, Carrie Parham MS, and Mona Wright, MPH. The manuscript was reviewed by Ms Parham, Ms Wright, and Ellen Robinson-Haynes, MA, of VPRP, and by Deborah Leff, JD, Josh Sugarmann and colleagues, and Stephen Teret, JD, MPH.

Suggested citation: Wintemute GJ. California's Guns and Crime: New Evidence. Sacramento, CA: Violence Prevention Research Program, 1997.

Summary

There has been much interest in the question of whether particular handguns constitute crime guns, in that they are more closely associated with criminal activity than are other handguns. This report presents the results of 3 new analyses of the association between small, inexpensive handguns, sometimes called Saturday night specials or junk guns, and crime. Most small, inexpensive handguns are produced by a group of related Southern California manufacturers known as the Ring of Fire companies — Bryco Arms/Jennings Firearms, Davis Industries, Lorcin Engineering, Phoenix Arms and its predecessor Raven Arms, and Sundance Industries. This report focuses on handguns made by those companies.

The first two analyses address this question: Among prospective handgun purchasers, are people who are believed to be at high risk for future criminal activity more likely than others to choose guns made by one of these companies?

We first studied the handguns chosen by all 3,041 males whose applications for handgun purchase in California in 1991 were denied after background checks found that their prior criminal activity made them ineligible to purchase handguns. Their handgun choices were compared with those of a random sample of 6,360 males whose handgun purchases were approved that same year. Persons whose purchases were denied were more than twice as likely as those whose purchases were approved to choose a handgun made by one of the Ring of Fire companies [Odds Ratio (OR)= 2.08, 95 percent Confidence Interval (95% CI), 1.85-2.33]. They were more than 2.5 times as likely to select a handgun made by Lorcin Engineering (OR= 2.54, 95% CI, 1.62-3.99). Those whose purchases were denied specifically as a result of prior felony convictions were more than 3 times as likely as those whose purchases were approved to select a handgun made by Lorcin Engineering (OR= 3.22, 95% CI, 1.88-5.50) and nearly 2.5 times as likely to select a gun made by Raven Arms (OR= 2.42, 95% CI, 1.80-3.27).

Our second analysis focused on young adults — those 21 to 25 years of age — who legally purchased a handgun in California in 1988. We compared the handguns purchased by the 1,372 persons who had a prior criminal conviction (but remained eligible to purchase handguns) with the handguns purchased by a random sample of 2,595 persons with no known prior criminal history. Handgun purchasers with a prior criminal conviction were 50 percent more likely than those with no prior criminal history to buy a handgun made by one of the Ring of Fire manufacturers (OR=1.50, 95% CI, 1.26-1.80). Those with a prior conviction for an offense involving firearms were 55 percent more likely than those with no prior criminal history to purchase a handgun made by one of these companies (OR=1.55, 95% CI, 1.01-2.39).

Our third analysis provides a more direct answer to the question of whether handguns made by these companies are associated with criminal activity. We studied the same young adults who legally purchased handguns in 1988. But this analysis focused on the incidence of new criminal activity of these handgun purchasers during the 3 years after they bought their handguns. Of persons who already had a criminal conviction when they purchased their handguns, those who bought a handgun made by one of the Ring of Fire manufacturers were 61 percent more likely than those who purchased other handguns to be arrested for a new crime within 3 years of handgun purchase (OR=1.61, 95% CI, 1.21-2.14). They were 37 percent more likely to be arrested for a new offense involving guns or violence (OR=1.37, 95% CI, 1.00-1.89).

Of all young adults who purchased handguns in 1988, an estimated 90 percent had no known criminal history at the time they bought their handguns. Therefore, perhaps our most significant results came from this analysis as it pertained to such persons. In our study population, among handgun purchasers with no prior criminal history, those who bought Ring of Fire handguns were 69 percent more likely than those who purchased other handguns to be arrested for their first adult offense within 3 years of handgun purchase (OR=1.69, 95% CI, 1.20-2.38). They were nearly twice as likely as purchasers of other handguns to be arrested for a first offense involving firearms or violence (OR=1.98, 95% CI, 1.31-2.99).

From these 3 analyses, we can draw two tentative conclusions. Persons whose prior criminal history suggests that they are at increased risk for future criminal activity are more likely than others to purchase handguns made by one of the Ring of Fire manufacturers. Second, young adults who purchase these handguns — most importantly, young adults who have no known prior criminal record — are more likely than young adults who purchase other handguns to engage in new criminal activity after their handgun purchase.

Introduction

There is continuing controversy over whether some firearms are weapons of choice for use in crime, in that they are more closely associated with criminal activity than are other handguns. Some studies have emphasized the role of small, inexpensive handguns in firearm violence (ref 1-4). Others have indicated that, particularly for homicides, larger and more powerful handguns may be most important (ref 5-9).

Small, inexpensive, poorly-made handguns, sometimes called Saturday night specials or junk guns, have been a special focus of violence prevention legislation for decades. In 1968, the federal Gun Control Act effectively banned the importation of such handguns. Domestic manufacture of these handguns was deliberately not addressed, however. As a result, small, inexpensive handguns are produced in large numbers in the United States — primarily in Southern California by a group of companies sometimes called the Ring of Fire manufacturers (ref 4). Recently, more than 30 local jurisdictions in California have enacted bans on the manufacture and sale of such handguns. Similar legislation is being considered in the California legislature and in the U.S. Congress.

This report seeks to determine whether small, inexpensive handguns have any special association with criminal activity. The particular focus of this report is handguns made by the Ring of Fire manufacturers. These companies — Bryco Arms/Jennings Firearms, Davis Industries, Lorcin Engineering, Phoenix Arms and its predecessor Raven Arms, and Sundance Industries — have dominated production of these handguns in the United States for some time. In 1993, their peak year to date, they produced 892,886 handguns. They accounted for 39 percent of all handguns manufactured in the United States that year (ref 10).

Reports from law enforcement sources throughout the nation indicate that these guns are frequently involved in crime. Of the top 10 handguns confiscated by California law enforcement agencies in 1993, 8 were produced by one of these manufacturers (ref 4). The single firearm most frequently involved in homicide in Milwaukee from 1990 through 1994 was the Raven Arms MP-25 pistol (ref 5). Of the 10 firearms traced by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in 1995, 6 came from one of these manufacturers (ref 11).

This report presents the results of 3 separate analyses of the relationship between guns made by the Ring of Fire manufacturers and criminal activity.

Two of these analyses address the following question: Among prospective handgun purchasers, are people who are believed to be at high risk for future criminal activity more likely than others to choose a gun made by one of these companies?

In the first analysis, our high-risk group is made up of all males who sought to purchase handguns by legal means in California in 1991 but whose purchases were denied by the California Department of Justice after background checks revealed prior criminal activity that made it illegal for them to purchase or possess firearms. Our comparison group is a random sample of males who successfully purchased handguns in California in 1991.

The second analysis focuses on young adults — persons 21 to 25 years of age — who legally purchased handguns in 1988 after passing California's criminal records background check. For this analysis, we defined our high-risk group to consist of all those handgun purchasers who had a prior criminal conviction that did not disqualify them from purchasing firearms. Our categorization of this group as high risk is based on the large body of research literature establishing that persons who have a history of criminal activity as of any given time are more likely than persons without such a history to commit new crimes subsequently (ref 12-15). Our comparison group is a random sample of young adult handgun purchasers who had no known prior criminal history.

The third analysis evaluates the association between the purchase of guns made by these companies and risk for new criminal activity. It addresses this question: Are persons who purchase Ring of Fire handguns more likely than those who purchase other handguns to commit new crimes afterwards? This analysis makes use of the same young adult handgun purchasers we have just described. In this case, however, we compared the odds that purchasers of handguns made a Ring of Fire manufacturer, as opposed to purchasers of other handguns, would be arrested for a new crime, or a new crime involving firearms or violence, within 3 years of their handgun purchase.

Methods

Our high-risk populations were not samples, but consisted of all persons having the specified characteristics. Thus, we included all males denied handgun purchase in 1991 as a result of prior criminal activity, and all young adults legally purchasing a handgun in 1988 who had a prior criminal conviction. Our comparison populations — males purchasing a handgun in 1991 and young adults purchasing a handgun in 1988 who had no prior criminal history — were random samples of all persons having those characteristics. For those who applied to purchase a handgun more than once in a the index year for that analysis, data from the first application were used. Information on criminal activity before and after handgun purchase was also obtained for all study subjects having such records.

The choice of a handgun made by one of the Ring of Fire manufacturers was the outcome measure for the first two analyses. For the first analysis, which compared males whose handgun purchase was denied in 1991 with those who successfully purchased handguns, crude odds ratios and confidence intervals were calculated. For the analysis of handgun purchases by young adults in 1988, odds ratios adjusted for sex and race/ethnicity were calculated by logistic regression; the critical exposure was the presence of a criminal conviction at the time of handgun purchase.

For the third analysis, the primary outcome measure was an instance of new criminal activity, as measured by an arrest for any offense or for an offense involving firearms or violence, within 3 years of handgun purchase. Separate results were computed for handgun purchasers who had a prior criminal conviction and for those who had no known prior criminal history. Odds ratios were again computed using logistic regression adjusted for sex and race/ethnicity. In this analysis the critical exposure was the purchase of a handgun made by one of the named manufacturers.

Data for all 3 analyses were provided by the California Department of Justice for a series of studies of the prediction of criminal behavior and of the effectiveness of denial of handgun purchase in reducing criminal activity.

Results

Analysis 1:

Handgun preferences of applicants for handgun purchase: a comparison between persons whose handgun purchases were denied as a result of prior criminal activity and those whose purchases were approved.

There were 3,041 males denied handgun purchase in California in 1991 as a result of prior criminal activity, of whom 672 (22 percent) had chosen handguns made by a Ring of Fire manufacturer. Of those whose purchases were denied, 1,265 were ineligible because of a prior felony conviction, 1,715 as a result of a prior misdemeanor conviction, and 61 for other reasons including domestic violence restraining orders. There were 6,360 successful handgun purchasers in the comparison sample, of whom 768 (12 percent) purchased handguns made by one of these companies.

Those whose purchases were denied were more than twice as likely those whose purchases were approved to choose a handgun made by one of the Ring of Fire manufacturers [Odds Ratio (OR)= 2.08, 95 percent Confidence Interval (95% CI), 1.85-2.33]. Results were very similar for those who had been convicted of felonies (OR= 2.13, 95% CI, 1.83-2.48) and those previously convicted of misdemeanors (OR= 2.06, 95% CI, 1.79-2.36).

There was substantial variation in the results for specific Ring of Fire manufacturers. Those whose handgun purchases were denied were 2.5 times as likely as those whose purchases were approved to select handguns manufactured by Lorcin Engineering (OR= 2.54, 95% CI, 1.62-3.99). They were also much more likely to select handguns made by Raven Arms (OR= 2.40, 95% CI, 1.90-3.02). They were nearly twice as likely as persons whose handgun purchases were approved to select guns made by Davis Industries (OR= 1.92, 95% CI, 1.61-2.29) and about 50 percent more likely to select handguns made by Bryco Arms/Jennings Firearms (OR= 1.49, 95% CI, 1.23-1.80).

Those whose handgun purchases were denied as a result of a prior felony conviction were more than 3 times as likely as those whose purchases were approved to select a handgun manufactured by Lorcin Engineering (OR= 3.22, 95% CI, 1.88-5.50). Felons were also particularly likely to select handguns made by Raven Arms (OR= 2.42, 95% CI, 1.80-3.27).

Among those whose handgun purchase was denied as a result of a prior criminal conviction, the percentage of persons selecting a handgun made by one of the Ring of Fire manufacturers also varied with the nature of that conviction. As shown in the figure on the following page, the persons most likely to choose guns made by one of these companies were those with prior convictions for robbery (30 percent) and homicide (29 percent).

Analysis 2:

Handgun preferences of young adult handgun purchasers: a comparison between persons with prior criminal convictions and those with no known prior criminal history.

This analysis examined data for legally authorized handgun purchasers in California in 1988 who were under 25 years of age at the time they bought their handguns. The study populations included all 1,372 such persons who had a prior criminal conviction and a random sample of 2,595 persons who had no prior criminal history. Of those with a prior criminal conviction, 286 (21 percent) purchased a handgun made by one of the Ring of Fire manufacturers. Of those with no known prior criminal history, 379 (15 percent) bought a gun made by one of these companies.

After controlling for differences in gender and race/ethnicity between the two groups, those with a prior conviction for any offense were 50 percent more likely than those with no known prior criminal history to purchase a gun made by one of the Ring of Fire companies (OR= 1.50, 95% CI, 1.26-1.80). Similarly, the likelihood of choosing a handgun made by one of these companies was approximately 50 percent greater for purchasers who had a prior conviction for an offense involving firearms (OR= 1.55, 95% CI, 1.01-2.39) or a prior conviction for a violent offense (OR=1.46, 95% CI, 1.01-2.11) than for those with no known prior criminal history.

Analysis 3:

New criminal activity among young adult handgun purchasers: a comparison between persons purchasing handguns made by Ring of Fire manufacturers and those purchasing other handguns.

In this analysis we computed separate results for those young adult handgun purchasers who had a prior criminal conviction and for those who had no known prior criminal history.

Among the 1,372 handgun purchasers who had one or more criminal convictions prior to their handgun purchase, 449 (33 percent) were arrested at least once for a new offense within 3 years of buying their gun, and 287 (21 percent) were arrested for a new offense involving firearms or violence. After controlling for the effects of gender and race/ethnicity, purchasers of Ring of Fire handguns in this previously-convicted group were 61 percent more likely than purchasers of other handguns to be arrested for a new offense (OR= 1.61, 95% CI, 1.21-2.14) and 37 percent more likely to be arrested for a new offense involving guns or violence (OR= 1.37, 95% CI, 1.00-1.89).

Of 2,595 young adults in our study sample who had no known criminal history at the time of handgun purchase, 232 (9 percent) were arrested for a new offense within 3 years of buying their gun and 140 (5 percent) were arrested for a new offense involving firearms or violence. After controlling for the effects of gender and race/ethnicity, purchasers of Ring of Fire handguns in this no-prior-history group were 69 percent more likely than purchasers of other handguns to be arrested for their first offense (OR= 1.69, 95% CI, 1.20-2.38) and nearly twice as likely as purchasers of other handguns to be arrested for a first offense involving firearms or violence (OR= 1.98, 95% CI, 1.31-2.99).

Discussion

Our first analysis focused on persons who attempted to purchase handguns legally but were considered to be at such risk for future criminal activity that they were prohibited by law from purchasing or possessing firearms. Such persons were more likely to select handguns made by one of the Ring of Fire manufacturers than were persons whose handgun purchases were approved. It could be argued that this high-risk group is atypical of persons with a significant criminal history who acquire handguns — after all, they sought to do so through legal channels. However, they may be less atypical than is commonly supposed. In one recent study of state prison inmates, those who used a handgun in the offense that led to their imprisonment were as likely to have purchased that handgun from a retail outlet as to have gotten it from "the black market, a drug dealer, or a fence." (ref 16)

Our second analysis was of young adults who purchased handguns legally. We found that, after controlling for other factors, those whose prior criminal convictions suggested that they were at increased risk for future criminal activity were more likely than others to purchase handguns made by Ring of Fire companies. This result is consistent with the first analysis, although the populations are different. (We should note that in 1991 California's criteria for denial of handgun purchase were broadened to include a number of violent misdemeanors. Some of the young adults with prior criminal convictions in this analysis would not have been able to purchase handguns legally in 1991.)

Finally, our third analysis determined that, after controlling for other factors, young adult purchasers of handguns made by the Ring of Fire companies were substantially more likely than purchasers of other handguns to be charged with new criminal activity after handgun purchase. In our view, it is particularly important that this finding applies to young adults who had no known criminal history when they purchased handguns. Persons with no known criminal history made up about 90 percent of all young adults who purchased handguns legally in California in 1988. Moreover, the increase in risk for new criminal activity associated with the purchase of a Ring of Fire handgun was greater for young adults with no known criminal history than it was for those with prior criminal convictions — particularly for offenses involving guns or violence.

We cannot say whether any of this new criminal activity involved the handguns purchased by our study subjects, or whether those handguns were acquired with criminal intent. We view this analysis as showing that the purchase of a handgun made by one of the Ring of Fire companies appears to be a marker, along with others, for the onset of criminal activity among persons who have no criminal history. We are mindful of an earlier report in which illicit gun dealers suggested that inexpensive handguns are often the first firearms acquired by young persons engaging in criminal activity (ref 17). One commentator has described them as "starter set" guns (ref 18). Our results are consistent with that view.

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