Gun buyers with criminal record likely to offend: study

May 19, 2010

( -- A new UC Davis Health System study finds that handgun buyers, if they have any prior criminal record, go on to commit felonies and violent misdemeanor crimes at much higher rates than law-abiding gun owners do. Identifying individuals who legally purchased guns and likely still own them after being convicted of subsequent crimes that prohibit gun ownership could be a valuable violence prevention measure, according to the study.

"The United States works hard to prevent felons, domestic violence offenders and other people with serious criminal from buying guns," said Garen Wintemute, an emergency medicine physician and director of the UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program. "We looked at how often people who have purchased guns legally, then became prohibited from owning them. It was a surprise to find such a significant correlation between minor criminal records among legal handgun purchasers and their subsequent convictions for more serious crimes."

The study, published online in the , found that handgun purchasers with no prior criminal history had very low rates of new criminal activity. However, Wintemute and co-author Mona Wright, a research investigator in the Violence Prevention Research Program, discovered that handgun purchasers with prior criminal histories had a nearly 1 in 20 chance of being convicted of a crime that prohibits gun ownership within five years of buying their guns. Among handgun purchasers with no prior arrests or convictions, less than 1 percent were convicted of a crime that prohibits gun ownership. The study is based on California Department of Justice data from more than 7,000 people who legally purchased handguns in California in 1991.

"For law-abiding gun owners the study's findings are reassuring," said Wintemute. "However, we found that even those with just one prior misdemeanor conviction were more than four times as likely to commit a crime for which gun ownership is prohibited."

Under federal law, people planning to purchase firearms from licensed dealers must first undergo a background check to verify that they are eligible to do so. Felons and people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence or subject to domestic violence restraining orders are among those individuals who are prohibited from buying or owning a gun.

The study, after taking into account differences in age and sex, found that handgun purchasers with one of these misdemeanor convictions were 4.2 times as likely to commit a crime that prohibits gun ownership. Handgun owners with two prior convictions were 10.4 times as likely, while those with three or more prior convictions were 13.6 times as likely as those with no prior criminal record to be convicted of a crime that prohibited gun ownership. The researchers obtained very similar results when they looked specifically at new convictions for murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault.

The study also found a strong relationship between age and risk for new criminal activity among handgun purchasers. For gun owners with prior misdemeanor convictions, new convictions for felonies and other offenses that bar gun ownership were 6.1 times as common among people aged 21 to 24 as among those aged 35 to 49.

Comparing handgun purchasers aged 35 to 49 with no prior criminal record to those aged 21 to 24 with three or more prior misdemeanor convictions, the study authors found that the younger group with criminal records was approximately 200 times as likely to be convicted of a felony or violent misdemeanor.

Equally troubling to the study team was the data on handgun purchasers who had been charged with crimes that prohibited gun ownership but had not been convicted. This was the case for 63 percent of all handgun purchasers with prior criminal histories, and more than 80 percent of those who were later convicted of a crime that prohibited gun ownership. It is a problem that Wintemute argues should be aggressively addressed by prosecutors.

"We recommend that policy makers and law enforcement professionals consider how to address continuing gun ownership among people who purchased guns legally at one time but are now prohibited from owning them because of their criminal convictions," said Wintemute.

According to the study's authors, the findings likely underestimate the incidence of criminal activity among handgun purchasers who no longer can legally buy or possess firearms, particularly outside California. The study did not take into account indictments, restraining orders, unreported convictions or other pending convictions. It also did not include domestic violence misdemeanors if the offense was recorded as non-domestic violence crime. The study did not include people convicted of violent misdemeanors, such as assault and battery or brandishing a firearm, because they are already prohibited from purchasing a gun under California law. However, such people can buy guns in most other states.

Explore further: Study finds law dramatically curbing need for speed

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Report exposes loopholes in gun-control laws

Sep 03, 2009

Gun shows and the lack of uniform gun-control laws provide easy access to guns that can be used for criminal purposes, according to a new report released today from the UC Davis Violence Prevention Research ...

Recommended for you

Study finds law dramatically curbing need for speed

Apr 18, 2014

Almost seven years have passed since Ontario's street-racing legislation hit the books and, according to one Western researcher, it has succeeded in putting the brakes on the number of convictions and, more importantly, injuries ...

Newlyweds, be careful what you wish for

Apr 17, 2014

A statistical analysis of the gift "fulfillments" at several hundred online wedding gift registries suggests that wedding guests are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to buying an appropriate gift for the ...

Can new understanding avert tragedy?

Apr 17, 2014

As a boy growing up in Syracuse, NY, Sol Hsiang ran an experiment for a school project testing whether plants grow better sprinkled with water vs orange juice. Today, 20 years later, he applies complex statistical ...

Creative activities outside work can improve job performance

Apr 16, 2014

Employees who pursue creative activities outside of work may find that these activities boost their performance on the job, according to a new study by San Francisco State University organizational psychologist Kevin Eschleman ...

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (1) May 19, 2010
when guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.
5 / 5 (1) May 21, 2010
Thanks for the tautology, smileylizard, but that really has no bearing on how easy or difficult we should/could make it for criminals to purchase guns... and it definitely says nothing about this study.

A more helpful tautology would be: "when outlaws can buy guns (or keep the guns they already have), outlaws will have guns".

More news stories

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...

Making graphene in your kitchen

Graphene has been touted as a wonder material—the world's thinnest substance, but super-strong. Now scientists say it is so easy to make you could produce some in your kitchen.

Low tolerance for pain? The reason may be in your genes

Researchers may have identified key genes linked to why some people have a higher tolerance for pain than others, according to a study released today that will be presented at the American Academy of Neurology's 66th Annual ...