The Last Link: from Gun Acquisition to Criminal Use


Guns that are used in crime and recovered by the police typically have changed hands often since first retail sale and are quite old. While there is an extensive literature on “time to crime” for guns, defined as the elapsed time from first retail sale to known use in a crime, there is little information available on the duration of the “last link”—the elapsed time from the transaction that actually provided the offender with the gun in question. In this article, we use data from the new Chicago Inmate Survey (CIS) to estimate the duration of the last link. The median is just 2 months. Many of the gun-involved respondents to the CIS (42%) did not have any gun 6 months prior to their arrest for the current crime. The CIS respondents were almost all barred from purchasing a gun from a gun store because of their prior criminal record—as a result, their guns were obtained by illegal transactions with friends, relatives, and the underground market. We conclude that more effective enforcement of the laws governing gun transactions may have a quick and pervasive effect on gun use in crime.

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This project was supported by Award No. 2014-MU-CX-0013, awarded by the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. We sincerely thank our partners at the Illinois Department of Corrections and the Chicago Police Department for their support and guidance, without which this project would not have been possible. All opinions, findings, conclusions, recommendations and any errors expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of our funders or partners, including the Department of Justice. We thank Research Support Services for assistance in survey tool creation and data collection efforts. We thank Roseanna Ander, Jens Ludwig, Max Kapustin, Kimberley Smith, Julia Quinn, Marc Punkay, and Sarah Emmons for their invaluable support and comments on this work. We would also like to thank the respondents who lent their time to complete the survey.

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Correspondence to Philip J. Cook.

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Cook, P.J., Pollack, H.A. & White, K. The Last Link: from Gun Acquisition to Criminal Use. J Urban Health 96, 784–791 (2019).

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  • Time to crime
  • Gun violence
  • Underground gun markets
  • Inmate survey
  • Chicago