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December 9, 2021

More research to support notion that spike in gun sales contributed to spike in gun crimes

As detailed in a number of prior posts (some linked below), because guns crimes but not many other crimes have spiked since the start of the pandemic, I have figured the pandemic spike in gun sales likely had some role in our modern crime trends.  This new piece from The Trace, headlined "New Data Suggests a Connection Between Pandemic Gun Sales and Increased Violence," seems to provide further support for my (simplistic?) thinking here.  Here are excerpts:

In March 2020, as the first COVID-19 outbreaks rippled across the U.S., Americans flocked to gun stores.  In total, civilians purchased some 19 million firearms over the next nine months — shattering every annual sales record.  At the same time, shootings across the country soared, with dozens of cities setting grim records for homicides.

As the pandemic progressed, and gun sales continued to climb alongside shootings, researchers have puzzled over the connection between these two intersecting trends.  Was the surge in violent crime related to the uptick in guns sold last year? We may not get a definitive answer to that question for years, but fresh data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives provides some of the first evidence that a relationship exists.

ATF data shows that in 2020, police recovered almost twice as many guns with a short “time-to-crime” — in this case, guns recovered within a year of their purchase — than in 2019.  Law enforcement officials generally view a short time-to-crime as an indicator that a firearm was purchased with criminal intent, since a gun with a narrow window between sale and recovery is less likely to have changed hands.  Altogether, more than 87,000 such guns were recovered in 2020, almost double the previous high.  And almost 68,000 guns were recovered in 2020 with a time-to-crime of less than seven months (meaning they were less likely to have been purchased the previous year).

Put more plainly, thousands of guns purchased in 2020 were almost immediately used in crimes — some as soon as a day after their sale. That was the case of the 9mm Beretta pistol purchased by an Arlington man from Uncle Dan’s Pawn Shop and Jewelry in Dallas, according to police records.  Officers seized the gun from its owner during a drug arrest 24 hours later. In another example, a Laredo, Texas, man assaulted his mother, then opened fire on police with his Smith & Wesson M&P 15-22 rifle in July 2020.  The gun had been purchased at a Cabela’s in Ammon, Idaho, just three months earlier.

“Overall, I think we can say that the gun sale surge may have contributed to a surge in crime,” said Julia Schleimer, a researcher in the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis, after reviewing the ATF’s data....

Researchers interviewed for this story cautioned that the number of guns recovered and traced by law enforcement does not always indicate the amount of gun crime in a given year.  In other words, factors driving increases in the amount of short-time-crime guns in the ATF’s data may be separate from the factors contributing to gun violence.

Still, no sales bump compares to 2020, when gun buying soared to unprecedented heights, Schleimer said, substantially widening the pool of recently purchased guns that could potentially turn up at crime scenes....

Jim Bueermann, a former California police chief who serves as a senior fellow at the George Mason University Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy, said that while the new data may not provide conclusive evidence of a causal relationship between gun sales and gun crime, it does signal the importance of additional exploration.  “Data like this asks more questions than it answers, but this is a clarion call for criminologists to conduct research in this space.”

A few of many prior related posts:

December 9, 2021 at 12:01 AM | Permalink


Guns cause homicide because they fire themselves, just like Alec Baldwin's did! Oh.....wait...........

The Herculean effort to subtract human agency from murder should continue to amaze, but it no longer does. For criminal defense, it's the name of the game, and has been since time out of mind.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 9, 2021 10:50:53 AM

Who is subtracting human agency? The point is that more guns enable more humans to be more violent and deadly when they fight with each other. Notably, some people and researchers assert that more guns results in less crime. Is that your position, Bill? Are you asserting we ought not care about data showing relationships between certain items and crime rates and patterns?

Posted by: Doug B. | Dec 9, 2021 11:36:28 AM

"Who is subtracting human agency?"

The defense bar and its allies in the press, every single day. Go down to court and watch the defense case, particularly allocution, if you don't believe me. And just recently, the WaPo had to step back a tweet saying that the Waukasha massacre was caused by "an SUV." It was driving itself! https://www.thewrap.com/washington-post-waukesha-tweet/

"Notably, some people and researchers assert that more guns results in less crime. Is that your position, Bill?"

I don't know enough to say. It's not that hard to envision particular circumstances in which having a gun results in less crime, but as a general proposition I'd need to see more evidence.

"Are you asserting we ought not care about data showing relationships between certain items and crime rates and patterns?"

Depends on what the "relationship" is and what the source implies it to be.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 9, 2021 12:08:20 PM

Here is a Scientific American article from four years ago, headlined "More Guns Do Not Stop More Crimes, Evidence Shows" and summarized "about 30 careful studies show more guns are linked to more crimes: murders, rapes, and others. Far less research shows that guns help." https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/more-guns-do-not-stop-more-crimes-evidence-shows/

One can certainly seek to make the claim that the other benefits of guns outweigh the violent crime costs. But I think the evidence suggest more guns often means more gun crimes. A recent big Rand report says we need a lot more and better research on these issues: https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2088-1.html.

Do you agree, Bill, we ought to be trying to research more fully and robustly the relationships between our gun policies and practices and crime?

Posted by: Douglas Berman | Dec 9, 2021 1:36:16 PM


This reminds me of our debate about whether incarceration is criminogenic. There are certainly cases in which inmates learn criminal techniques in prison that they practice once released, and in those cases, yes, incarceration is criminogenic. But overall statistics -- namely, the huge decrease in crime in the 20 years from 1990 - 2010 combined with huge increase in incarceration over that same time -- show that, as a general proposition, incarceration is NOT criminogenic and, to the contrary, contributes substantially to crime reduction.


Because it incapacitates criminals from practicing their trade in civil society.

Pretty much the same deal with guns and crime. There are any number of documented cases where a good guy with a gun stops an ongoing crime or one that's about to commence. In such instances, obviously guns are helpful. Over the long term, it may well be the case that the more guns there are out there, the more murder you're going to get, just as when we have more cars on the highways, then, other things being equal (like speed limits), the more traffic accidents and fatalities you're going to get.

But that doesn't ipso facto prove we should have fewer cars. It does prove that we should be careful about who we let drive. Similarly, rising murder with guns doesn't ipso facto prove we should have fewer guns (and this is putting entirely to one side that the Second Amendment addresses guns rights and says nothing about cars). What it proves is that we should be more careful about who we let have guns, see, e.g., the famous Heller dictum that its holding does not call into question the prohibition on ownership by previously convicted felons (a prohibition you have vocally opposed for years).

As to your question directly: I'm all for research when it actually is research. I'm skeptical when it's simply a prefab prelude to a prefab conclusion.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 9, 2021 2:46:12 PM

Bill, you are bright enough to know that prison can incapacitate (at least from committing crime on the outside in "civil society") and also be criminogenic (meaning it increases the likelihood a person will commit a crime later once released) --- and the high recidivism rates you often like based on folks released at the height of mass incarceration would seem support my concern that prison can often turn lower-risk persons into higher-risk persons (unless you plan to pay for keep everyone risky imprisoned until they are in their 70s when even the highest-risk folks become low-risk).

I agree that we should be more careful about who we let have guns and cars because guns and cars are dangerous. Notably, cars have to be registered (and often taxed) and they are also heavily regulated to advance greater public safety. Unfortunately there is often great opposition to such comparable safety measures for guns. Would you welcome safety regulations for guns that are comparable to those regulations we have for cars?

To be clear, my concern about criminal prohibitions on felons having guns is based on my failure to understand how a fundamental constitutional right can be subject to such an extreme and broad categorical restriction. I hope you and many others would be troubled if all felons and some misdemeanants were criminally prohibited from ever again attending church or could forever have their homes searched for no reason and without a warrant. In other words, what makes something a fundamental constitutional right (like the 1st and 4th Amendments) is that every adult retains those rights with only some limited and well-justified exceptions that apply to most everyone. But for guns, we have invented --- without any textual or historical support in the Second Amendment --- an extreme and broad categorical restriction to deny people this supposed "right." The thinking, no doubt, is that guns are dangerous and that justifies more restrictions. But that basic logic undermines the entire personal right to guns in the first place. Justice Barrett gets the point as she explained in her Kanter dissent:

"History is consistent with common sense: it demonstrates that legislatures have the power to prohibit dangerous people from possessing guns. But that power extends only to people who are dangerous. Founding-era legislatures did not strip felons of the right to bear arms simply because of their status as felons. Nor have the parties introduced any evidence that founding-era legislatures imposed virtue-based restrictions on the right; such restrictions applied to civic rights like voting and jury service, not to individual rights like the right to possess a gun. In 1791 — and for well more than a century afterward — legislatures disqualified categories of people from the right to bear arms only when they judged that doing so was necessary to protect the public safety."

I actually like some law in my rule of law with respect to gun rights and other rights, otherwise we are just doing policy in another guise. I also like actual research in my research, so we are on the same page there.

Posted by: Doug B. | Dec 9, 2021 4:04:37 PM

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