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Violence Prevention Research Program

Violence Prevention Research Program

Does California Have Crime Guns? An Analysis of Justice Department Data

Garen J. Wintemute, MD, MPH

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

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.

March 1995

Suggested citation: Wintemute GJ. Does California Have Crime Guns? An Analysis of Justice Department Data. Sacramento, CA: Violence Prevention Research Program, 1995.

©1995 by Garen Wintemute

Introduction

Regulatory efforts to prevent firearm violence frequently address specific classes of firearms. The importation of the poorly-made, small-caliber handguns commonly called Saturday Night Specials was banned by the Gun Control Act of 1968. In 1994, similar concerns regarding certain high capacity semiautomatic firearms led to a ban on their manufacture.

Such policies are based on a belief in the validity of the "crime gun hypothesis," which holds that some firearms are at greater risk than others for use in crime. For a class of guns to be at high risk for use in crime, such guns must be used in crime not just frequently, but disproportionately: even more frequently than would be expected from the number of them in circulation (1).

This is clearly the case for handguns generally, as opposed to long guns (rifles and shotguns). Handguns constitute approximately 44 percent of firearms manufactured in the United States in the past two decades (2), but account for more than 80 percent of all homicides and other violent crimes involving firearms (3,4). In 1992, handguns were used in an estimated 931,000 violent crimes (5).

Research in this area has been hampered by the lack of systematically collected data on the specifics of firearms actually used in crime. In lieu of such data, estimates are commonly based on reports of firearms confiscated by local law enforcement agencies, or on firearm tracing data from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Unfortunately, confiscation data generally do not distinguish between guns connected with a criminal investigation and guns taken for safekeeping or turned in voluntarily and having no criminal association. Similarly, BATF tracing data include only those firearms for which the establishment of a chain of ownership is important to a criminal investigation. Not all guns actually used in crime and acquired by law enforcement agencies are submitted for tracing.

In addition, there are no systematic data on the number of firearms actually in circulation in the United States. In the past, estimates have been generated based on manufacturers' reports of the number of guns produced each year. Since these data are only available at the national level, it has not generally been possible to generate estimates of firearms' risk for use in crime on any other than a national basis.

This report attempts to overcome some of these difficulties by making use of unusually high quality data collected by the California Department of Justice (CDOJ). With these data it is possible to estimate the risk for use in crime of specific classes of handguns. The particular focus of this report is on small-caliber and 9mm handguns.

Methods

To estimate the use of guns in crime, data were taken from the guns-in-evidence database maintained by CDOJ. Local law enforcement agencies file a report for each firearm taken into their possession and held in evidence in connection with a criminal investigation. While not all these firearms are actually being used in a crime at the time of their confiscation, the criminal context in which they are acquired makes it reasonable to infer that these guns are particularly likely to be used in crime. Importantly, this database does not include guns that were simply found, taken for safe keeping or acquired for other purposes.

CDOJ also maintains accurate data on the number of handguns sold by licensed dealers each year in the state. These data can be categorized by manufacturer, caliber, and other characteristics.

For this study, the guns-in-evidence data for 1993 were used as a measure of the incidence of gun use in crime, and data on gun sales for the years 1991-1993 were used as an index of gun availability. Some of the guns in the 1993 guns-in-evidence data will have been sold in earlier years, but there is good evidence that new guns are most likely to be used in crime (6). Similarly, some guns used in crime in California will have been brought into the state and not sold here. In a large state that allows relatively easy access to handguns, the number of such guns should not be large enough to introduce a significant bias in the estimates.

For each subcategory of handguns, risk for use in crime is calculated as the number of records for such guns in the guns-in-evidence data for 1993, divided by the number of guns of that type sold in California during the years 1991-1993. Errors arising from the two data limitations mentioned above are more likely to affect estimates of absolute risk than comparisons of estimated risk among classes of handguns. Therefore, only comparative risks are shown.

Results

Over the years 1991-1993, 9mm handguns were by a wide margin the most common handgun type sold in California (Table 1). These 9mm guns accounted for 26 percent of the 1,010,282 handguns sold in the state during those years. By a much narrower margin, 9mm handguns were also the most common handgun type in the CDOJ guns-in-evidence data for 1993 (Figure 1). Most smaller-caliber handguns also appear frequently in the guns-in-evidence data. Taken as a group, guns in these smaller calibers are much more frequently represented in the guns-in-evidence data than are 9mm or other handguns (Figure 2).

Estimated risk for appearance in the guns-in-evidence data varies substantially by gun caliber, and is higher for each of the smaller calibers than for 9mm guns (Figure 3). Depending on the specific caliber, these guns are 1.8 to 4.4 times as likely as are 9mm guns to appear in the guns-in-evidence data (Figure 3).

Discussion

While 9mm handguns are the most common type identified in the California Department of Justice "crime gun" data, they are also the handgun most commonly sold in California. The evidence presented here suggests that smaller-caliber guns are at substantially greater risk for use in crime, when risk is taken to mean use in crime as a function of number of guns in circulation.

The majority of these smaller-caliber guns sold in California have the easy concealability and poor quality of manufacture that are characteristic of Saturday Night Special handguns (7). Today, more than 80% of the .25-caliber, .32-caliber, and .380-caliber pistols made in the United States are manufactured in California. The contention that these handguns are disproportionately involved in crime is reinforced by the finding that, of the specific handguns most commonly appearing in the 1993 guns-in-evidence data, 8 of the top 10 guns are produced by one of these California manufacturers.

Policy makers may wish to consider these findings as they formulate laws to reduce firearm violence.

References

  1. Wintemute GJ. Homicide, Handguns, and the Crime Gun Hypothesis: Firearms Used in Fatal Shootings of Law Enforcement Officers, 1980 to 1989. American Journal of Public Health 1994; 84:561-564.
  2. BATF production data, tabulated in Thurman R. Shooting Industry's Firearms Business Analysis. Shooting Industry 1994 Dec; 39(12):99-110,112-127.
  3. Crime in the United States 1991. Washington DC: Federal Bureau of Investigation, 1992.
  4. Criminal Victimization in the United States, 1992. Washington DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, Department of Justice, 1994 (Publication No. NCJ-145125).
  5. Rand MR. Guns and Crime. Washington DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, Department of Justice, 1994 (Publication No. NCJ-147003).
  6. Zimring FE. Street Crime and New Guns: Some Implications for Firearms Control. Journal of Criminal Justice 1976; 4:95-107.
  7. Wintemute GJ. Ring of Fire: The Handgun Makers of Southern California. Sacramento, CA: Violence Prevention Research Program, 1994.