#20: Access To Guns

Table of Contents:

Access To Guns
Laws Allowing Children to Own Rifles and Shotguns
The Youth Gun Market
Increased Risk of Homicide, Suicide and Death by Unintentional Shooting
Illegal Access to Handguns
Diversion Of Guns From FFL’s to Felons to Underage Shooters
Federal Gun Laws Against Gun Trafficking
Global Gun Violence
Living With Guns
Underground Gun Markets
Access to Guns in Childhood


Access To Guns

This Report is prompted by a letter to the editor of the Albuquerque Journal invitingly titled, “Get To The Bottom Of Who Deals In Guns.”[1] There are thousands of academic dissertations, articles, blogs, cases, reports, and studies about gun manufacturing, sales, and distributions. But there is scant writing or data about the letter-writer’s core point—“The 800-pound gorilla in Albuquerque and most cities—the ease with which anyone in town can acquire a gun.”

Is that true? Can anyone in any town acquire a gun “with ease?” The letter writer makes a good point with a metaphor; “I would bet that any 15-year-old in Albuquerque could get a handgun quicker than they could get a drink in a Downtown bar.” He’s probably right. In most print media reports about young adult shooters, the source of the gun is not mentioned. That’s because, “it’s no big deal to acquire a handgun.”

Laws Allowing Children to Own Rifles and Shotguns

Federal law prohibits handgun ownership by any person under the age 18, with a handful of exceptions. But there is no minimum age for a long gun—a rifle or shotgun. Twenty states and the District of Columbia have set their own minimum age laws ranging from 14 in Montana to 21 in Illinois, but in the remaining 30 states it’s technically legal for a child to possess a long gun.[2]

Ownership is possible but buying is not. Federal law does prohibit sales to anyone under eighteen. But a parent can give a thirteen-year-old child a gun of any kind. It’s also legal from teenagers to shoot at gun ranges. And then there is the definitional aspect. A Uzi is a submachine gun. It’ classified as either a handgun or a long gun depending on the model and modifications to the gun.[3]

The Youth Gun Market

Children under 18 cannot purchase guns in the legal gun market, but there is little to stop them from buying in the illegal gun market. “Firearms, once in the legal market, can be diverted into the illegal market in a number of ways including straw purchasers for prohibited persons, scofflaw licensed gun dealers selling guns ‘off the books,’ gun traffickers in the business of selling guns to gangs and other criminals, and thefts from gun shops, homes, and motor vehicles. After a gun is diverted into the hands of criminals or to underage youth, it could change hands numerous times in a variety of ways – sales, trades for drugs, loans, or theft.”[4]

Scholars have extensively debated the relative importance of different diversion channels that eventually serve the youth gun market. Based on a large-scale survey of juvenile offenders and at-risk youth, researchers said theft likely served as the most important conduit of guns possessed by youth.[5]

Increased Risk of Homicide, Suicide and Death by Unintentional Shooting

“Youths’ access to firearms, particularly if unsupervised or in the context of illegal activities increases the risk of homicides, suicides, and deaths from unintentional shootings. There is an abundance of guns in U.S. homes, motor vehicles, and on the streets, as well as willingness of tight networks of young offenders’ willingness to loan or share guns. In most instances, youth acquire guns from friends, family members, or underground market sources in which they have some level of trust.”[6]

Illegal Access to Handguns

Frontline, the PBS News Show, calls them hot guns.[7] “Ask a cop on the beat how criminals get guns and you’re likely to hear this hard boiled response: ‘They steal them.’ But this street wisdom is wrong, according to one frustrated Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent who is tired of battling this popular misconception. An expert on crime gun patterns, ATF agent Jay Wachtel says that most guns used in crimes are not stolen out of private gun owners’ homes and cars. Stolen guns account for only about 10% to 15% of guns used in crimes, Wachtel said. Because when they want guns they want them immediately the wait is usually too long for a weapon to be stolen and find its way to a criminal.”[8]

Diversion Of Guns From FFL’s to Felons to Underage Shooters

A Federal Firearms License (FFL) is a license in the United States that enables an individual or a company to engage in a business pertaining to the manufacture or importation of firearms and ammunition, or the interstate and intrastate sale of firearms. It works most of the time. When it doesn’t bad guys get guns. The NRA says the best way to stop a bad guy with a gun is to put one in the hands of a good guy. Tragically there are untold thousands of so-called good guys who do bad things with illegally acquired guns. We call most of them mental cases or boys whose brains are not yet fully formulated.

Getting an “older” boy to buy a six-pack of beer at the back door of a bar is an everyday occurrence in America. Getting a man to buy a gun for a boy is a “straw” purchase. A man and a boy walk into a gun store. The man buys a gun. They go outside. The boy gets the gun. The man gets his money back, plus a nice tip. Gun stores attract Illegal gun traffickers like banks attract robbers—that’s where the guns are. It’s much easier to buy them than steal them.

The Giffords Law Center To Prevent Gun Violence says, “Gun trafficking and straw purchasing dangerously undermine states’ gun safety laws and drive the illegal firearms market.”[9] Gun trafficking diverts guns from lawful commerce into illegal markets. It crosses state lines because gun trafficking takes advantage of America’s porous gun laws by buying guns in states with weak gun laws and illegally reselling them in states with strong gun laws.

Federal Gun Laws Against Gun Trafficking

There is no federal gun law that makes gun trafficking a crime. But Congress has dabbled in the subject. It makes certain classes of people, felons, ineligible to purchase or possess firearms. You cannot sell your gun to a felon if you have “reasonable cause to believe” the buyer is a felon. Pressure from the NRA has limited the government’s ability to conduct background checks on purchasers and maintain records of sales. Consequently, guns pass through the hands of legal buyers to minors, felons, bad boys not yet caught, and mentally disturbed youngsters, oldsters, vigilantes, and copycats.

Global Gun Violence

Worldwide gun violence is a seldom-thought-about issue for ordinary Americans. We pay scant attention to our own gun violence, except for nightly news story or morning headlines in print media. Once scanned, we go about our business assuming the world will take care of its own. That said, more than 2000 people are injured by gunshots every day and a least two million people live with gunshot wounds around the globe.[10]

The global statistics are wrenching. In 2019 alone, more than 250,000 people died as a result of firearms worldwide. Nearly 71% of gun deaths were homicides, 21% were suicides, and 8% were unintentional firearms-related accidents. Nine out of 10 people killed by gun violence in 2019 were men. The highest number of homicide deaths occurred among people 20-24 years old, while the highest number of gun-enabled suicides came from those aged 55-59.

The U.S. ranked second in 2019 gun deaths. Brazil won first place. The ranking is intriguing. With the exception of India, all of the high-ranking countries are in the western hemisphere.[11]

  1. Brazil (49436)
  2. United States (37038)
  3. Venezuela (28515)
  4. Mexico (22116)
  5. India (14710)
  6. Colombia (13169)
  7. Philippines (9267)
  8. Guatemala (5980)

Living With Guns

While most of us don’t give it any thought, four in ten American adults live in houses with guns. Thirty per cent of us own a gun. Forty-four per cent of Republicans and Republican leaning voters personally own a gun, while only twenty-percent of Democrats do. Men are much more likely to own guns than women are—thirty-nine% versus twenty-two%. Forty-one percent of gun owners live in rural areas. Twenty-nine percent live in the suburbs and barely two in ten live in cities.[12]

Living with guns is one thing; gun violence another. Less than half of us see gun violence as a “very big problem” today according to Pew Research survey conducted in April 2021.[13]

Underground Gun Markets

Underground gun markets exist across the country. “Understanding how individuals obtain guns, and their unsuccessful attempts to get guns, is key to developing interventions that effectively restrict the supply of guns in an underground market.”[14]

Access to Guns in Childhood

One would think children would have no access to guns. Sadly, that’s not the case. The negative outcomes are tragic and directly connected to lax gun regulation. Child access to guns at home increases their risk of firearm related suicides, homicides, and unintentional injuries.[15] It is directly associated with adverse outcomes during adulthood. Researchers did the study over two decades at a “community-representative longitudinal sample from southeastern US to determine whether childhood gun access is associated with adult criminality or suicidality.”[16] The study confirmed, “Childhood gun access is prospectively associated with later adult criminality and suicidality in specific groups of children. During childhood, the 3-month prevalence of having a gun in the home was 55.1% Of the children in homes with guns, 63.3% had access to a gun, and 25.0% owned a gun themselves. Having gun access as a child was associated with higher levels of adult criminality and suicidality even after adjusting for childhood correlates of gun access. Risk of adult criminality and suicidality among those with childhood gun access was greatest in male individuals, those living in urban areas, and children with a history of behavior problems.[17]

If to make matters worse, the reality of unlocked guns in homes with children is stunning. “Roughly a third of U.S. homes with children have guns. An estimated 4.6 million kids live with unlocked, loaded guns. That’s a scary statistic when you think about the fact that even young toddlers are capable of finding unlocked guns in the home, and they are strong enough to pull the trigger.”[18]

Just weeks before writing this Report, a mother in Florida was fatally shot by her two-year old toddler while the woman was on a Zoom video call. One of her coworkers saw it and called 911. There were two toddlers in the home—one of them picked up an unsecured, loaded handgun and shot her mother in the head. “ABC news reported the Seminole County State’s Attorney’s Office was reviewing the case to determine whether charges should be filed against the children’s father, who owned the gun.”[19]


[1] The Albuquerque Journal, Opinion, Tuesday, September 21, 2021, Tim Kraft, at page A11

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2014/08/27/in-30-states-a-child-can-still-legally-own-a-rife-or-shotgun/

[3] Ibid.

[4] https://www.nap.edu/resource/21814/Youth-Acquisition-Carrying-Firearms-US.pdf

[5] Sheley JF, Wright JD. Gun Acquisition and Possession in Selected Juvenile Samples.
NIJ Publication. 1993.

[6] Ibid.

[7] https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/guns/procon/guns.html

[8] Ibid.

[9] https://giffords.org/lawcenter/gun-laws/policy-areas/crime-guns/trafficking-straw-purchasing/

[10] https://www.amnesty.org/en/what-we-do/arms-control/gun-violence/

[11] https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/gun-deaths-by-country

[12] https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/09/13/key-facts-about-americans-and-guns/

[13] https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2021/04/15/americans-views-of-the-problems-facing-the-nation/

[14] https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/10.1089/vio.2019.0054

[15] https://www.aappublications.org/news/2021/07/06/access-guns-pediatrics

[16] Ibid.

[17] https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/148/2/e2020042291

[18] https://www.healthychildren.org/English/safety-prevention/at-home/Pages/Handguns-in-the-Home.aspx

[19] https://abcnews.go.com/US/florida-mom-shot-dead-toddler-zoom-call-police/story?id=79458256

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