Results from a 1991 Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) survey of some 2,280 handgun-using state prison inmates support Wright and Rossi’s observation that the illicit firearms market exploited by criminals is heavily dominated by informal, off-the-record transactions, either with friends and family or with various street sources (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1993). The 1991 survey found that only 27 percent of the inmates who used a handgun in crime that led to their incarceration reported they obtained the handgun by purchase from a retail outlet. In contrast to the Wright and Rossi (1994) findings, the BJS survey found that only 9 percent of inmates who used a handgun in a crime had stolen it. More recently, Decker and colleagues’ (1997) analysis of arrestee interview data (i.e., the Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring Survey) revealed that 13 percent of arrestees admitted to having a stolen gun. Among juvenile males, one-quarter admitted to theft of a gun (Decker et al., 1997).

Sheley and Wright’s (1993) survey of high school students and incarcerated juveniles suggested that informal sources of guns were even more important to juveniles.1 More than 90 percent of incarcerated juveniles obtained their most recent handgun from a friend, a family member, the street, a drug dealer, or a drug addict, or by taking it from a house or car (Sheley and Wright, 1993:6). Sheley and Wright (1995) found that 12 percent of juvenile inmates had obtained their most recent handgun by theft and 32 percent of juvenile inmates had asked someone, typically a friend or family member, to purchase a gun for them in a gun shop, pawnshop, or other retail outlet. When juveniles sold or traded their guns, they generally did so within the same network from which they obtained them—family members, friends, and street sources (Sheley and Wright, 1995).

BATF Firearms Trace Data

BATF firearms trace data, described in Chapter 3, have been used to document that firearms recovered by law enforcement have characteristics suggesting they were illegally diverted from legitimate firearms commerce to criminals and juveniles (see, e.g., Zimring, 1976; Kennedy et al., 1996; Wachtel, 1998; Cook and Braga, 2001). Trace data, reflecting firearms recovered by police and other law enforcement agencies, have revealed that a noteworthy proportion of guns had a “time to crime” (the length of time from the first retail sale to recovery by the police) of a few months or a few years. For example, Cook and Braga (2001) report that 32 percent of traceable handguns recovered in 38 cities participating in BATF’s Youth


In addition to the incarcerated juvenile sample described above, Sheley and Wright also surveyed 758 students enrolled at 10 high schools in 5 large cities that were proximate to the juvenile correctional facilities they surveyed between 1990 and 1991.

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