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Violence Prevention Research Program

Violence Prevention Research Program

Gun Confiscations: A Case Study of the City of Sacramento in 1995

Ellen Robinson-Haynes, MA
Garen J. Wintemute, MD, MPH

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

October 1997

The Violence Prevention Research Program is located at the University of California, Davis. Its work addresses the causes, nature, and prevention of violence. This project was supported in part by a grant from the California Wellness Foundation.

Suggested citation: Robinson-Haynes E, Wintemute GJ. Gun Confiscations: A Case Study of the City of Sacramento in 1995. Sacramento, CA: Violence Prevention Research Program, 1997.

© 1997 by Ellen Robinson-Haynes and Garen Wintemute

Acknowledgments

VPRP staff who contributed to this report are Jason Baker, Barbara Claire, Melissa Garcia, Kevin Grassel, Vanessa McHenry, Carrie A. Parham, MS and Mona A. Wright, MPH.

Thanks to Christopher Hadley, Ashley T. Kozuma and Joan Parris of the Property Management Section of the City of Sacramento Police Department.

Special thanks to those who reviewed this report prior to publication:

Christopher Hadley
Supervisor, Property Management Section
City of Sacramento Department of Police

Stephen Hargarten, MD, MPH
Interim Chair
Department of Emergency Medicine
Medical College of Wisconsin

Samuel T. Haynes
Word Work
Writer, Editor
Sacramento, CA

Jim Mayer, MA
Deputy Executive Director
State of California Little Hoover Commission
Sacramento, CA.

Lynne E. Ohlson
Licensing Coordinator, Office of Operations
City of Sacramento Department of Police

Josh Sugarmann
Kristen Rand
Tom Diaz
Susan Glick
Violence Policy Center
Washington, D.C.

Julius Wachtel
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms
U.S. Department of the Treasury

Billie Weiss, MPH
Program Director
Injury and Violence Prevention Program
Los Angeles County Department of Health Services


Only the Executive Summary, Chapter I and Chapter VII are available on this Website.

If you would like a copy of the complete manuscript, please send a request in writing or send us an E-mail.


Table of Contents

  • Chapter I
  • Introduction
  • This Project
  • The Numbers
  • Chapter II
  • The Ins and Outs of Confiscating Guns
  • Chapter III
  • The Guns
  • The Crime Guns
  • Temporal Trends
  • Saturday Night Specials
  • Tracking Owners of Confiscated Guns
  • Stolen Guns
  • Theft-to-Crime Time
  • Chapter IV
  • The People
  • Different People, Different Guns
  • Guns and Gangs
  • Chapter V
  • The Places
  • Chapter VI
  • The Criminal Charges
  • Charges and Guns
  • Charges and Ages of Subjects
  • Domestic Violence Charges
  • Top 10 Charges by Age Group
  • Charges by Location
  • Appendix
  • Subject Methodology
  • Place Methodology
  • Charge Methodology

Executive Summary

The illegal and violent use of firearms victimizes more than 1 million Americans every year: thousands are killed or injured and millions more are frightened they will be next. To halt this raging epidemic, law enforcement officials, policy makers and concerned citizens need to know details about the criminal use of guns: What size are they? Who makes them? Who uses them? What are they used for? Where do they come from? And where are they used?

This project focuses on one source of information about the criminal use of firearms that has gone largely untapped: the information about firearms that are confiscated by law enforcement officers. Focused on all the guns confiscated in one community for a full calendar year, this project shows that such information yields rich details that can be used to plan prevention strategies based on empirical data about how, where and in what context criminals use firearms.

Until now, law enforcement agencies, policy makers and residents in Sacramento have had only anecdotal evidence that there are patterns to the illegal and violent use of firearms in their community. While this report in large part affirms what has been known anecdotally, its findings provide the first real detailed analysis of what victims, authorities and fearful citizens in California's seat of government actually face. Furthermore, these findings provide a roadmap for developing effective and finely honed strategies to reduce the level of criminal firearms violence in those areas at greatest risk. They also prove that firearm confiscation data can be a reliable source of information for any community committed to determining the extent of its own criminal firearms activities and developing custom-made prevention activities.

Sacramento is a fertile location for such a study. Like many large urban areas, California's capital has a disproportionately high number of crimes. But its crime rate is even higher than crime rates in the capitals and large cities of other highly populous states, such as New York and Texas. Also, the findings suggest that Sacramento's experience of violent firearms-related crime may be typical of the nation's experience. We found, for example, a downward trend in the number of crime guns police confiscated monthly in 1995 that might well mirror the nation's decline in criminal violence, though it is a trend that needs to be set into a longer-term context for verification.

The findings show that among those guns that Sacramento police confiscated in 1995, handguns used in crime outnumbered long guns by a 3:1 margin, with .22-caliber firearms the most common among both handguns and long guns. As has been shown in the few other known studies of confiscated guns, Saturday night specials—or junk guns—dominate the list of those that Sacramento police most frequently confiscated. While we lacked barrel length or model numbers for one-fourth of the confiscated crime handguns, we found that half of those for which we had that information would not have met federal safety standards required for foreign-made firearms.

Very few of the confiscated guns were listed in the state's Automated Firearms System or had a Dealer's Record of Sale on file. Of those that did, few had been taken from owners whose names were listed on the DROS records, and two of every five were found to be stolen. Police confiscated more than half of the stolen guns within 12 months after they were stolen, just under half within the first six months.

While Sacramentans ages 12 to 24 accounted for only 21 percent of the city's residents, they accounted for nearly half of all those from whom police confiscated firearms. The younger the subject, the more commonly they were found with small-caliber handguns. Also, when firearms were found in the possession of groups of subjects, those subjects were usually juveniles or youths.

Furthermore, the factors that correlate with high gun confiscation rates point to the distinct relationship between poverty and criminal gun activity. Compared with areas of low criminal gun activity, those with high activity were more densely populated, had higher unemployment rates and had many younger residents, more single parents, higher residential vacancy rates, lower housing values and rental rates, fewer high-school graduates, more residents receiving public assistance and more single mothers living below the poverty line. Two areas anecdotally known to be hotspots of criminal activity—North Sacramento and East Broadway—stood out when examined through the lens of gun confiscation data. While racial and ethnic diversity was also more common among those areas with high rates of criminal gun activity, economic status—such as median income—better predicted risk for such activity. But even in the areas at highest risk, the great majority of households—well over 90 percent—were not involved in a gun confiscation in 1995.

Not surprisingly, the most common criminal charges associated with the confiscated guns were gun charges, such as carrying a concealed firearm. But both drug and violence charges increased in frequency with age. Drug charges, for example, were five times as common among those over 35 as among those ages 12 to 17. Domestic violence charges, known to be under represented in these data, increased with age as well, and were the most common of the top 10 charges associated with those over 35. In contrast, all of the top 10 charges associated with those 12 to 17 were property crimes, such as receiving stolen property or car theft.

A variety of prevention activities can be developed based on these findings. Specific recommendations are offered in the final chapter of this report. But they should be viewed only as a catalyst for conceptualizing prevention strategies, a process that should include policy makers, law enforcement officials and citizens, all of whom have a vested interest in stemming the tide of criminal firearms activity that this report documents.

Chapter I – Introduction

Firearms violence is one of the nation's leading public health and criminal justice problems. It is one most commonly described through statistics. In 1994 for example, guns were used to kill, rob or assault 1.1 million people in this country.(1) Guns killed 15,456 of the 22,076 Americans murdered that year;(2) nearly 70,000 more were treated in hospital emergency departments for gunshot wounds inflicted during assaults.(3)

Police confiscation records provide the human faces behind these statistics. There's the 38-year-old convicted felon who illegally owned nine firearms, which he stashed in his quiet south Sacramento home near one of the city's more bucolic golf courses. On a cold afternoon, just after the new year, this convicted spouse abuser used one of his guns—a Walther 9-mm pistol—to once again terrorize his wife and four-year-old son. Then there's the 27-year-old who used her North American Arms .22-caliber revolver—a Christmas gift from her husband—to shoot him, not once but twice, for refusing to buy milk and diapers for their infant.

For law enforcement officers, public policy makers, friends, families and neighbors, these kinds of stories and statistics have become all too commonplace. Guns are routinely fired — purposely or in error, in broad daylight and in the dead of night — in comfortable and affluent neighborhoods like Land Park and east Sacramento, as well as in beleaguered, struggling neighborhoods like Del Paso Heights. While recent crime statistics show a downward trend in the national violent crime rate — a 7 percent drop in 1996(4) — the criminal use of firearms remains historically high. Certain populations, particularly juveniles, still face high risks from firearms
violence.(5)

This Project

Despite all the stories of criminal firearms activity, few specifics are known about guns used in crime or about guns confiscated by law enforcement agencies. Reliable data have not been available about the types of these guns, their calibers, the charges associated with their use, the specific people from whom they are confiscated or the geographic areas at greatest risk for criminal firearms activity. But this information is available through a close analysis of the extensive information police record about the firearms they confiscate every day in the course of enforcing the law.

To determine whether confiscated firearms provide reliable information that community policymakers, violence prevention workers, law enforcement agencies, planners and neighborhood residents can use to reduce the level of criminal firearms activity, we conducted a comprehensive analysis of all the guns police confiscated in a moderate-sized city in one calendar year.

We sought to answer questions about the guns themselves (For example, are specific guns more at risk for use in criminal activity?), the subjects from whom the guns are confiscated (Are specific age groups more at risk for having such guns?), the criminal charges associated with the confiscated guns (Are drugs or violence always involved?), and the places the guns are found (Can areas at risk for disproportionate gun activity be identified and a profile established?). This report focuses on just one city —in this case, the capital of the most populous state in the country —but we believe it establishes a model that can be used in other communities to describe the level of criminal gun activity, to identify areas and people at highest risk, and to develop prevention strategies.

This report will focus on all the firearms the Sacramento Police Department confiscated in calendar year 1995. We will follow the guns from their confiscation through their eventual disposition. We will examine the protocol for handling confiscated weapons. We will detail the guns themselves by such descriptives as type, caliber and manufacturer. We will correlate the guns with selected characteristics of those from whom they are confiscated. We will examine socioeconomic and demographic information about the geographic areas where the guns were found and compare areas at high risk to those at low risk. We will set these findings into a larger context and recommend ways in which gun confiscation information can be used to make firearms violence prevention activities more effective.

The Numbers

Every year cities all over the United States count certain serious crimes,(6) called index crimes, and report them to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The total number of these crimes is called a city's crime index, which the FBI and others use to compare crime activity city by city. The number of index crimes reported in a city or state, divided by the number of people living there, is called its index crime rate; it is usually expressed as crimes per 100,000 population.

As usual, the nation's largest state outpaces most others. In 1995, California had an index crime rate of 5.8—the eighth highest in the nation.(7) With an estimated population in 1995 of 375,845, California's capital, Sacramento, had a crime index rate of 10.3,(8) outpacing nearly every other city of comparable size or larger in California (see Table I.1).

Table I.1: Crime in California cities, in order of their index crime rates

Population Index crimes Index crime rate Violence index crime rate Property index crime rate
Fresno 388,495 46,267 11.9 1.5 10.5
Sacramento 375,845 38,803 10.3 1.1 9.2
San Francsico 738,371 60,474 8.2 1.5 6.8
Los Angeles 3,466,211 266,204 7.7 2.0 5.7
Long Beach 436,034 30,657 7.0 1.3 5.7
San Jose 822,845 36,096 4.4 0.8 3.6

For the size of its population, Sacramento has a disproportionately high number of index crimes. In fact, national data show that Sacramento ranks 10th among regions most at risk for car thefts.(9) Capital cities suffer generally from the same woes that afflict urban areas all across the country, but it is unusual for one to experience such a lopsided index crime rate. In 1995 Austin, a capital city larger than Sacramento, had an index crime rate of 8.1, sandwiching it between other Texas cities, such as Dallas with 9.5, Houston with 7.6 and San Antonio with 8.0. Albany, the capital of New York, had an index crime rate of 8.0, again in line with cities such as Buffalo with 9.2, New York City with 6.1 and Syracuse with 7.1. Sacramento outpaced capital cities in these other highly populated states.

Among the factors contributing to Sacramento's high index crime rate is its high number of property crimes — burglaries, larcenies and thefts. For example, with a population more than twice Sacramento's, San Jose had 6,000 fewer burglaries, larcenies and thefts than Sacramento in 1995.

The FBI's data do not report the use of firearms in index crimes for Sacramento itself, but the agency did report that 68 percent of murders, 41 percent of robberies and 23 percent of aggravated assaults recorded nationwide in 1995 were committed by offenders wielding guns.(10) Sacramento police know that guns were involved in 72 percent of the city's murders in 1995, but their data make no other links between the use of guns and crimes in the city. (If FBI percentages are applied to crimes in Sacramento, firearms were involved in 1,356 murders, robberies and assaults in the city that year.)

The Sacramento Police Department collects extensive information on the nearly 2,000 firearms that its officers confiscate every year in response to about 100,000 calls for assistance. However, funding restraints and the high demands for investigation aimed at solving crimes keep police from doing much with aggregate crime data beyond collecting the information the FBI uses to compile its annual Uniform Crime Report. The department's antiquated computer system will be upgraded over the next several years, thanks to a multi-million dollar grant from the federal government.(11) Until then, however, no aggregate and detailed information that could be used to prevent firearms violence will be available from the department.

Chapter VII – Recommendations

Gun confiscation data, while incomplete, provide a road map that law enforcement agencies, policymakers and citizens can use to monitor and intervene in criminal gun activity in a community.

These data identify specific areas of Sacramento that experience much more gun activity than others do. These hot spots should be targeted for interventions to reduce criminal gun activity street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood. As the Kansas City gun experiment has shown,(73) increased policing would be a first step. Enlisting the residents of these hot spots in community-sponsored efforts to reduce and even eliminate guns from their streets would be an important and necessary component as well.

Second, these gun confiscation data show that Sacramento's young people are the most at-risk for criminal gun activity. To reduce the level of criminal gun activity within its boundaries, Sacramento must work aggressively to get guns out of the hands of the young, who compose half of all those from whom police confiscated crime guns in 1995.

To stem the flow of guns into the hands of this population, it is imperative to learn where these guns are coming from. A first step would be to trace every crime gun confiscated from someone under age 25. Nearly 30 other cities around the country now trace all their guns as part of the federal Youth Crime Gun Interdiction Initiative. Aggressive investigation of crimes involving guns in the hands of the under-25s also is necessary, along with the imposition of heavy penalties for those who facilitate or profit from this gun market. All sources of guns—from legitimate gun shops to neighborhood kitchen-table dealers, gun shows, sales between private parties, and, most important, illegal trafficking—need to be scrutinized for their roles in providing guns to this at-risk population. Straw-man purchases—cases in which someone who is not prohibited from purchasing firearms buys a gun as a surrogate for someone who is prohibited—may be particularly important. And gun manufacturers should not be ignored either. As many as 14,000 guns are now thought to have entered the criminal market after disappearing from the poorly guarded premises of Lorcin Engineering, one of the Ring of Fire manufacturers, according to a recent investigative report that the well-respected public television program Frontline broadcast in June.

Most guns used in crime, especially by youths, have no ownership record. This implies that a major source of Sacramento's crime guns is the illicit gun market. Penetrating this market to discover and aggressively prosecute its chief operators in Sacramento could inhibit the ready accessibility of firearms. Such activity may be patterned after BATF's Youth Crime Gun Interdiction Initiative and Project LEAD, which are building powerful computer databases of crime guns to identify traffic patterns and those who sell guns to kids.(74)

Enlisting Sacramento's legitimate gun owners and dealers in this effort is critical as well. Through community-wide education efforts, gun owners need to be encouraged to keep better track of their guns by routinely recording serial numbers, securing guns properly and legally transferring ownership of them. They also need to be encouraged to report all gun thefts and losses to the police as soon as they are noticed.

Sacramento police enter information on confiscated guns into the firearms-in-evidence database maintained by the California Department of Justice. A permanent statewide database of guns confiscated at crime scenes would facilitate firearms violence prevention efforts. At present the state does not keep a permanent record of these guns, many of which have been confiscated in a criminal context; records are deleted after three years, if not sooner. Moreover, not all jurisdictions participate in CDOJ's database.

In Sacramento, police run background checks on those seeking to recover confiscated firearms. Unless there is a dispute about ownership, these people are not required to prove ownership by providing a sales slip or invoice, let alone complete the DROS form required of all gun transactions in California. Furthermore, while 437 of the confiscated guns had owners listed in CDOJ's Automated Firearms System, Sacramento police do not routinely contact DROS-listed owners of guns that were subsequently found in association with criminal activity. While such guns may well have changed hands several times before the police confiscate them, such tracking would serve to remind the public they are responsible for legally transferring ownership of their firearms. This situation — when a crime gun is already in the hands of the police — provides an ideal opportunity to discover as much information on these guns as possible and enter that information into a tracking system.

Statewide, the process that produces DROS records, which now feeds information on only a fraction of California's guns into the state's Automated Firearms System, should also be expanded. The state law requiring most gun transfers to be handled by a federally licensed dealer and thus to generate a DROS record needs to be aggressively publicized. Penalties need to be assessed when that law is broken.

While it's an idea whose implementation has proved elusive, empowering law enforcement agencies that confiscate firearms to destroy rather than return those guns associated with criminal charges could be an important step. Sacramento police already do this for some offenses. Particular attention needs to be paid to guns found in association with threatened or actual domestic violence. The Lautenberg amendment to the 1996 Treasury/Postal appropriations bill, which when passed last year prohibited any convicted abuser from owning or possessing a firearm, was a good beginning. But permanent removal of firearms from homes at risk for domestic violence would likely further reduce the level of firearms violence as well. At the least, since many people don't know they can ask police to confiscate firearms for safekeeping, law enforcement officers should routinely ask about the presence of firearms at scenes of threatened or actual violence.

Better computerized data could improve prevention efforts at several levels. Linking by computer the guns that police confiscate to the estimated 100,000 service calls they receive annually would answer many stubborn questions and dramatically improve this profile of the role guns play in crime in Sacramento. Data exist that would allow us to determine the role of guns in robberies, rapes and assaults in Sacramento. But for lack of resources these data have not been comprehensively collected and analyzed. At present, only the use of guns in murders in Sacramento is calculated.

Computerized crime mapping, which has greatly assisted law enforcement efforts elsewhere, would be particularly useful. Even with the information available now, it might be possible to learn what distinguishes places where crime guns are confiscated from nearby places where no crime occurs.

To effectively reduce criminal firearms activity we need more answers. We need to know, for example, if most of the confiscated guns were found in the areas generating the highest number of police calls. We also need to know if specific kinds of requests for service can be identified as high-risk for the presence of guns; if areas with high incidences of burglaries, robberies or car thefts are also areas with lots of gun confiscations; or if the large number of stolen guns police confiscated in 1995 were linked to the number of burglaries reported that year. We need to know if some areas are at greater risk for gun thefts. Answers to these and other similar questions would provide ideal targets for gun-violence intervention.

Even more use could be made of these data if police and property management staff reported more gun information on the confiscated guns than the bare-bones data required for investigative and prosecutorial purposes. For example, barrel lengths (recorded on just 569, or 30.7 percent, of the 1,855 guns), more accurate model names and numbers, and information about safety devices would allow law enforcement agencies and policy-makers to identify variables that place specific weapons at-risk for use in criminal activity in Sacramento.

Linking the guns to the specific suspects or defendants from whom they are confiscated would help identify demographic trends, especially if the home addresses of these subjects were routinely recorded on the property record. It would then be possible to specify whether the guns were confiscated from residents of the area or from visitors, and if from visitors, to identify and eliminate the area's attraction to those who bring guns in.

If the subject's race and gender were added to the property record, it would be possible to target at-risk populations more specifically. It would reveal whether national trends, which show, for example, higher rates of violence among young African-American males, are mirrored here in Sacramento. It would also help reveal whether women are playing a greater role in criminal gun activities, as some researchers suspect.

Furthermore, if guns linked to gang activity were identified as such, the data could be used to help document and identify individual members involved in gun activity as well as to identify the guns at risk for such use, providing still more targets for gun violence intervention.

Information on the charges associated with each gun also needs to be improved. Specific criminal activities could thus be linked to geographic areas without having to abstract such information from the more cumbersome and bulky police report. At this point, only the preliminary charges — those identified at the scene by the arresting officer — are included on the property record; computer printouts that list actual charges and whether they are felonies or misdemeanors are rarely attached to the property record. Also, if more than one subject is charged when a gun is confiscated, the property record needs to specify the individual subject who had the gun.

While unnecessary for prosecutorial purposes, these enhancements of the property records would provide an even better road map for those interested in reducing the level of criminal firearms activities in the state's capital.

All this will take people, time and money to accomplish. But injuries caused by the criminal use of firearms are costly to treat. A study conducted at the U.C. Davis Medical Center in Sacramento showed, for example, the average cost to treat a patient injured with a firearm in 1990 to 1992 was $13,794.(75) Preventing even a handful of these injuries would save Sacramento enough money to offset the cost of developing and implementing prevention strategies. Sacramento's law enforcement personnel accomplish a great deal with the resources available to them. At a time when crime figures so prominently in the public's mind, we believe that local, state and federal policy-makers should be willing to help provide the necessary additional resources.

Notes

From Chapter I

1. U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Criminal Victimization in the United States, 1994; A National Crime Victimization Survey Report, NCJ-162126, 64.
2. U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Crime in the United States, 1995, 18.
3. M.R. Rand, Violence-Related Injuries Treated in Hospital Emergency Departments, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1997, NCJ-156921.
4. U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, 1996 Preliminary Uniform Crime Report, June 1997.
5. U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, 1996 Preliminary Uniform Crime Report, June 1997.
6. Murders, non-negligent manslaughters, forcible rapes, robberies, aggravated assaults, burglaries, larcenies and thefts, motor vehicle thefts and arsons.
7. U.S. Department of Justice, Crime in the United States, 1995, 68.
8. U.S. Department of Justice, Crime in the United States, 1995, 108-113.
9. National Insurance Crime Bureau, "1994 Vehicle Theft Study."
10. U.S. Department of Justice, Crime in the United States, 1995, 18-34.
11. W.H. Taylor, Conversations with author, Sacramento, CA., 1996.

From Chapter VII

73. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice, The Kansas City Gun Experiment, January 1995, L.W. Sherman, J.W. Shaw and D.P. Rogan.
74. U.S. Department of the Treasury, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobqcco and Firearms, 1996 Firearms Enforcement Report, P3312.2, August 1996, 20.
75. K.W. Kizer, M.J. Vassar, R.L. Harry and K.D. Layton, "Hospitalization Charges, Costs and Income for Firearm-Related Injuries at a University Trauma Center," Journal of the American Medical Association, V273:22 (June 14, 1995), 1771.