Greater Availability of Stolen Firearms in U.S. Cities Linked To Higher Firearm Homicide Rates, Says New Study

Sept. 30, 2021

By Tom McLaughlin

Greater availability of stolen firearms in U.S. cities is linked to higher firearm homicide rates, according to new Rutgers University–Camden research.

“Gun violence is a major problem throughout the United States and leads to tens of thousands of deaths each year,” says Dan Semenza, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Rutgers–Camden. Guns are a primary driver of lethal violence, so it is imperative that we understand how the availability of firearms corresponds to homicides.”

Semenza and research co-authors examine how the availability of legally obtained and stolen firearms are tied to subsequent rates of firearm and non-firearm homicides in 226 cities from 2010 to 2017 in their paper, “Firearm Availability, Homicide, and the Context of Structural Disadvantage,” published in the journal Homicide Studies.

The researchers combined homicide data for each city from the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Reports with Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) records of federally licensed dealers in each city, along with data on stolen guns from the Missing Pieces Archive. The archive is a database of firearms reported lost or stolen, compiled by The Trace, a news organization that focuses on gun violence in the United States.

“We found that, by looking at how people obtain firearms legally through firearms dealers versus illegally – using different measures of the number of stolen guns in a city – it is the stolen guns that are driving the shootings and higher homicide rates,” says the Rutgers–Camden researcher.

Semenza notes that these findings are consistent with prior research, which shows that people who used a firearm to shoot someone often report that they obtained the gun through informal channels, such as trading with a family member or known gang associate, or asking someone to buy it on their behalf.

“So, to see that the supply of stolen guns in a city corresponds to firearm homicides rather than the number of dealers, it makes sense but is really concerning when we consider how easy it is to get a stolen gun in most cities,” he says.

The study also assesses how the relationship between firearm availability and homicides differs by the level of structural and economic disadvantage in cities. The researchers found that cities with higher poverty rates and other indicators of community hardship had a stronger relationship between the stolen gun market and homicide rates.

Semenza posits that there is more of an underground market for stolen guns in these disadvantaged communities because there is frequent violence associated with gang-related crimes, drugs markets, and other illicit activities. Often, people – including those who already have a criminal background – will look to the underground market to obtain a firearm.

“This is one of the key drivers here,” he says. “People are already struggling within dangerous, desperate conditions in their local communities, so there is a greater need to have a gun, which corresponds to a higher risk for shootings and homicides.”

Semenza is quick to note that the researchers do not see a relationship between firearm availability and non-gun homicide rates, which means that it is the availability of guns specifically that are leading to more killings.

“Guns are a primary driver of lethal violence, so it is imperative that we understand how the availability of firearms corresponds to homicides.” – Dan Semenza

The Rutgers University–Camden researcher adds that guns are more impersonal than knives and are a “force magnifier,” so it is much easier to inflict a lot of damage very quickly and from farther away.

“More guns in circulation within communities basically mean more opportunities for a gun to end up harming someone,” he says.

So, what more can be done?

Semenza says that the United States has struggled for years to regulate and crack down on illegal gun markets. However, he says, based on the study’s findings, there must be greater efforts to reduce gun violence by eliminating the availability of stolen guns.

“That means local police, as well as federal agencies, need to invest more resources into tracking stolen guns and preventing gun theft,” he says. “We also need to make sure that there is a more focused effort in disadvantaged places that are going to have a greater demand for the guns which are ultimately used in these shootings. At the same, we have to be cautious not to create conditions where communities are inequitably policed in the name of cracking down on these gun markets.”

He notes that every gun has to start at a dealer, and there are many ways that firearms can “bleed” from legal dealers into the underground market. He recommends making sure that there are greater protections and monitoring of firearms dealers to mitigate dealer thefts.

However, he stresses, since stolen guns are a primary drivers of these shootings, they need to be the primary point of intervention, rather than firearms dealers.

“Ultimately,” he says, “we need to use whatever means are possible to interrupt the pipeline of stolen guns.”

Semenza’s co-authors for this study are Richard Stansfield, an associate professor of criminal justice at Rutgers–Camden; Trent Steidley, an assistant professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Denver; and Ashley Mancik, an assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of South Carolina.

Posted in: Research Highlights

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