How Often Criminals Are Getting Stolen Guns

Criminals use stolen guns to commit crimes, goes the common refrain, which is why gun control is pointless. If you haven’t said it yourself, you’ve probably heard someone else do so either in person, online or on television or radio.

Makes sense, right? Most gun owners are law-abiding people, so the only way criminals get their filthy criminal hands on firearms is by theft or other villainy. But DO they? What sort of numbers are out there on stolen guns and their use in crimes?

Bear in mind that any statistics have to be taken in context and with a good dose of salt. This is what can be discovered from federal agencies in a moderate amount of time. In other words, while these are actual figures reported by government agencies, the idea is more to take them as ballpark rather than gospel.

Furthermore, the “bad guys with guns” is somewhat inaccurate; otherwise law-abiding citizens commit crimes with firearms as well as career criminals. What is meant is people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to purchase a gun, either due to age or status as felons or fugitives that commit crimes.

The Rate Of Gun Theft

The last year the Bureau of Justice Statistics (part of the Department of Justice) has gun theft data for — or at least the last year they published — is 2012. That year’s <a href=”" rel=”nofollow” target=”_blank”>Crime Brief</a> (PDF) contains data up to the year 2010, so it’s hardly the freshest.

That said, the BJS reports 145,300 thefts of firearms for 2010, and around 1.4 million between 2005 and 2010, for an average of 232,400 per year in that period. Granted, that’s less than in the previous decade, when a high of nearly 300,000 was reached in 1995.

Of gun thefts that occurred between 2005 and 2010, gun thefts occurred during 2 percent of violent crimes and 1 percent of property crimes. However, of those property crimes, guns stolen in burglaries and motor vehicle thefts were most common, accounting for 89.400 of 2,394,250 burglaries (around 3.7 percent of burglaries) and 3,060 of the 670,700 motor vehicle thefts, or less than 0.5 percent.

Gun thefts usually are part of a property crime — meaning a burglar steals a gun because they find it while committing a burglary that they would be committing anyway — as 75 percent of burglaries involving gun theft resulted in the loss of the gun and one other item; 25 percent were the theft of just a gun. The average loss incurred during a theft of one or more guns and other items was $7,600, compared to $500 for burglaries where only a gun was stolen.

Handguns were the most commonly stolen type of firearm, as 44 percent of gun thefts were thefts of handguns. Long guns accounted for 37 percent and thefts of both accounted for the remaining 19 percent.

The majority of gun thefts occurred in the Southern states, as 56 percent of burglaries involving gun theft and 59 percent of other property crime involving gun theft occurred in those jurisdictions. Additionally, rural households were more frequently targeted relative to the share of housing in rural areas, as 34 percent of gun thefts from homes occurred in rural areas despite only 17 percent of American housing being located in such areas.

The BJS also reported that 80 percent of stolen guns are not recovered. To know how many crimes are committed with stolen guns, the gun has to be reported as stolen — either by the owner, manufacturer/shipper or FFL, and then recovered after being used in commission of a crime.

Strawbuying and Other Criminal Methods

Bear in mind also that guns can be obtained illegally without stealing them; private sellers can unwittingly sell to criminals if they don’t have a background check performed as part of the sale. Likewise, straw buyers can also purchase firearms legally and then illegally sell them on the black market.

<p>According to a 1994 ATF study quoted by <a href=”" rel=”nofollow” target=”_blank”>PBS Frontline</a>, stolen firearms only accounted for around “10 to 15 percent” of guns used in commission of crimes. Those guns purchased from a straw buyer were twice as likely to be used in commission of a crime.

A 2004 survey of prison inmates by the <a href=”" rel=”nofollow” target=”_blank”>Bureau of Justice Statistics</a> likewise found 7.5 percent of inmates who possessed a gun at the time of their arrest had obtained it via theft; 25.2 percent purchased from a drug dealer or other street sale and 7.4 percent purchased from the black market or a known fence. In total, 40 percent had obtained their gun from those illegal sources.

Further, 37.4 percent had obtained their gun(s) from family or friends and 11.3 percent had purchased them from a retailer of some sort, such as a gun store or pawn shop.

Only 0.8 percent had obtained firearms from gun shows.

The ATF found in 1994 that while straw purchases and other means besides theft were more successful than theft for obtaining guns illegally, only a few FFLs — around 8 percent of the then 124,000 or so federally licensed dealers — were responsible for the bulk of distribution into criminal hands.

So is it the case that criminals are using stolen guns to commit crimes? Yes they are, but not as many as you’d think. They’re far more likely to get them from family, friends, or buy them illegally, and very few obtained them from gun shows.

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