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Gun Theft and Crime

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Some law enforcement officials and other observers have asserted that theft is the primary source of guns to crime. In fact, the role of theft in supplying the guns used in robbery, assault, and murder is unknown, and current evidence provides little guidance about whether an effective program to reduce gun theft would reduce gun violence. The current article analyzes publicly available national data on gun theft together with a unique data set for Chicago. The results tend to support a conclusion that stolen guns play only a minor role in crime. First, publicly available data are used to calculate that thefts are only about 1% of all gun transactions nationwide. Second, an analysis of original data from Chicago demonstrates that less than 3% of crime guns recovered by the police have been reported stolen to the Chicago Police Department (CPD). If a gun is reported stolen, there is a 20% chance that it will be recovered, usually in conjunction with an arrest for illegal carrying. Less than half of those picked up with a stolen gun have a criminal record that includes violent offenses. Third, results from surveys of convicted criminals, both nationally and in Chicago, suggest that it is rare for respondents to have stolen the gun used in their most recent crime. The data on which these results are based have various shortcomings. A research agenda is proposed that would provide more certainty about the role of theft.

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Funding was provided by a grant from the National Institute of Justice, and the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation. The research in this report was conducted in conjunction with the University of Chicago Crime Lab. Among those who provided key inputs to this work are Max Kapustin, Marc Punkay, Julia Quinn and Kimberley Smith. The author is grateful to the Chicago Police Department for making available the data upon which pieces of this report are based. All opinions and any errors are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of our funders or of any government agency.

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Correspondence to Philip J. Cook.

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Cook, P.J. Gun Theft and Crime. J Urban Health 95, 305–312 (2018).

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