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Caught in a Crossfire: Legal and Illegal Gun Ownership in America

Part of the Handbooks of Sociology and Social Research book series (HSSR)

Just beneath the surface of much of the popular, political, and scholarly debate on gun control is a set of assumptions about the propinquity of the legal and illegal gun worlds. Few people know about, or carefully consider, exactly what these two worlds look like. As a result, much of the debate is ill informed and results in silly, if well intended, policy suggestions or actions, or the lack thereof. It is important to understand the simple facts of legal and illegal gun ownership and use because they are really at the foundation of the entire debate on myriad gun control issues.

Keywords

  • Homicide Rate
  • Gang Member
  • Gang Membership
  • Firearm Ownership
  • Illegal Firearm

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Notes

  1. 1.

    For historical research in the area of gun ownership in America see Bruce-Biggs, 2001; Cottrol & Diamond, 1995; Kennet & Anderson, 1975; Kopel, 1992; Legault, 2008b; Malcolm, 2003; Tonso, 1982, 1983.

  2. 2.

    There have been other, more recent tests concerning subcultural violence in the South; however, these tend not to focus on the relationship between firearm ownership and region (see Nisbett & Cohen, 1996).

  3. 3.

    The degree of gun use could range from a victim actually shooting an assailant to telling someone that he or she has a gun to scare the person away. The seriousness of the threat could range from an actual physical attack to something that “goes bump in the night” and may or may not be a real threat.

  4. 4.

    For an excellent ethnographic description of some of these activities and the motivations of gun owners, see Kohn, 2004.

  5. 5.

    With between 3 and 6 million firearms being added every year, current estimates could range from 120 to 300 million firearms in private hands in the United States. These additions are not, for the most part, replacements for lost, broken, or worn out guns.

  6. 6.

    One percent attrition is probably an overestimate of the number of firearms lost per year, but makes our estimate more conservative by its size and because it gives firearms that are produced more recently, in greater numbers, the same weight as those that were produced in the more distant past when fewer guns were added per year. Guns are durable goods that require only a small amount of care to remain operational.

  7. 7.

    From 10% to 23% in 27 years (Bryson & Casper, 1998, p. 5).

  8. 8.

    In national surveys with a sample size of around 1,500 cases, it is unlikely that more than one or two violent gun felons would be included in the sample. For example, even in years when violent crime was at its peak the United States might log 480 violent crimes per 100,000 population with about a quarter using guns. This nets one or two gun felons in 1,500 cases under the unlikely assumption that each crime was committed by a different felon. So, surveys of the general U.S. population typically tap legal owners.

  9. 9.

    These illustrations are based on the highest estimates of privately owned firearms and U.S. census estimates for 2006 of about 105 million households and 299 million persons in the U.S. population (U.S. Census, 2008b).

  10. 10.

    Many guns obtained from illegal transfers excluding theft were stolen at some point down the line by one transferee or another (Wright & Rossi, 1986).

  11. 11.

    Traceable guns need to be obtained by the police in the first place. They must have been manufactured after serial numbers were introduced to the market. They must in fact be traced by the police, and so on. In other words, traced guns are not necessarily an unbiased sample of all guns used in crime, just as felons’ reports of guns used are not an unbiased source.

  12. 12.

    See Cook et al. (2007) for a fascinating account of underground gun markets.

  13. 13.

    In fact, boys who own legal guns essentially look like those who do not own in terms of criminal offending.

  14. 14.

    See Wells and Horney (2002) for an excellent discussion of this research.

  15. 15.

    The homicide rates are reported in the U.S. Vital Statistics (see table), and the firearm homicide rates are reported in the Uniform Crime Reports (U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2007).

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Legault, R.L., Lizotte, A.J. (2009). Caught in a Crossfire: Legal and Illegal Gun Ownership in America. In: Krohn, M., Lizotte, A., Hall, G. (eds) Handbook on Crime and Deviance. Handbooks of Sociology and Social Research. Springer, New York, NY. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4419-0245-0_22

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