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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University October 23, 2006 | Vol. 36 No. 8
Gun-Dealer Sales Reforms Reduce Supply of New Guns to Criminals

By Kenna Lowe
School of Public Health

Reforms in the sales practices of a gun store that prior to May 1999 sold more than half the guns recovered from criminals in the Milwaukee area resulted in a 44 percent decrease in the flow of new guns to criminals in the city, according to a study by researchers with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health's Center for Gun Policy and Research that appears in the September/October issue of The New York Academy of Medicine's Journal of Urban Health.

In May 1999, a highly publicized government study revealed that a Milwaukee-area gun shop was the nation's leading seller of guns that were later recovered from criminals. Two days after the study was publicized, the dealer announced that his store would no longer sell the small, inexpensive handguns — sometimes known as Saturday Night Specials — that are commonly used in crime.

In the Johns Hopkins study, researchers tracked the number of guns that police recovered from criminals within one year of retail sale. This unusually short sale-to-crime interval is considered an indicator of illegal gun trafficking. The store's change in sales policy was associated with a 96 percent decrease in the number of small, inexpensive handguns recovered from criminals in Milwaukee that had been recently sold by the store. There was also a 42 percent reduction in other types of guns sold by the dealer and soon recovered from a criminal. The reductions in Milwaukee occurred abruptly after the change in the dealer's sales practice and appear to be directly attributable to those reforms, a finding supported by the fact that the study found no change in gun trafficking in three comparison cities in the Midwest.

Daniel Webster, lead author of the study and co-director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins, said, "There is a long-standing and contentious debate about whether licensed gun dealers play a role in illegal trafficking. Our study shows that changes in a single gun dealer's sales practices led to a dramatic reduction in the supply of new guns to criminals in Milwaukee. Increased scrutiny of the few gun dealers linked to the most crime guns has the potential to significantly reduce the supply of new guns to criminals in many other U.S. cities."

Previous research reported by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives revealed that just 1 percent of federally licensed gun dealers sell more than half the guns subsequently recovered from criminals in the United States. However, most gun dealers rarely have a gun traced to crime.

"Our study findings have important implications for policy-makers as they consider ways to combat gun violence," Webster said. "The study underscores the importance of using crime gun trace data to identify sources of illegal guns and to evaluate efforts to prevent criminals from obtaining guns."

The study was co-authored by Webster, Jon S. Vernick and Maria T. Bulzacchelli, all with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health's Center for Gun Policy and Research.

Funding was provided by grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Overbrook Foundation and the Joyce Foundation.


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