Where the Guns Come From: The Gun Industry and Gun Commerce

By Wintemute, Garen J. | The Future of Children, Summer-Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Where the Guns Come From: The Gun Industry and Gun Commerce


Wintemute, Garen J., The Future of Children


SUMMARY

Under federal law, it is illegal for youth under age 18 to purchase rifles or shotguns, and for those under age 21 to purchase handguns. However, fatality and injury statistics clearly show that guns are finding their way into young people's hands. Many of these youth obtain guns through illegal gun markets.

This article focuses on how guns in the United States are manufactured, marketed, and sold. The article shows how the legal and illegal gun markets are intimately connected and make guns easily accessible to youth.

* Although the domestic gun manufacturing industry is relatively small and has experienced declining sales in recent years, it has significant political clout and a large market for its products, and has engaged in aggressive marketing to youth.

* Lax oversight of licensed firearms dealers, combined with little or no regulation of private sales between gun owners, mean that guns can quickly move from the legal gun market into the illegal market, where they can be acquired by young people.

* Certain guns, especially inexpensive, poorly made small handguns, are particularly attractive to criminals and youth.

The author observes that several policy innovations--including increased regulation of licensed firearms dealers, intensified screening of prospective buyers, regulation of private sales, gun licensing and registration, and bans on some types of weapons--hold promise for decreasing the flow of guns into the hands of youth.

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America's children and youth remain in the grip of an epidemic of gun violence. In 1999, some 40% of all gun homicide victims, and 15% of all gun suicides, were children or youth under age 25. (1) That same year, 43% of all "crime guns"--guns seized from criminals--were taken from children or youth. (2)

Beginning in the mid-1980s, medical and public health practitioners became increasingly involved in gun violence prevention. They argued that gun violence could be attacked using the same basic strategies that had proven effective in fighting diseases. They believed that guns, like germs, had what amounted to a life cycle; accordingly, weak links in the chain of events that led from a gun's manufacture to its use in crime could be identified and broken. The events in that life cycle were largely unknown at the time, so these pioneers aggregated information on instances of gun violence to seek underlying patterns. Their work coincided with an increasing interest on the part of criminologists and criminal justice practitioners in applying the lessons learned from such patterns--the "big picture"--at the street level.

The big picture emerged with unexpected clarity. A subset of guns, from specific manufacturers, was disproportionately involved in gun violence. These guns moved rapidly into the hands of those who misused them, including youth, often following predictable pathways.

This article provides an overview of how the gun industry and gun markets operate in the United States--and how those operations make guns easily accessible to children. The article begins with a discussion of how the gun industry operates: who manufactures guns, who owns guns, and how the gun industry actively promotes the use of guns by young people. The next section of the article reviews the complex workings of gun markets, and discusses how both legal and illegal systems of commerce allow guns to fall into the hands of children and youth.

Fortunately, increasing knowledge of gun commerce has created new opportunities for violence prevention. The article concludes with a discussion of regulatory, law enforcement, and other strategies that show early promise in changing the way gun markets operate and in reducing youth access to guns.

The Gun Industry

Gun manufacturing in the United States is a relatively small industry, and sales fell in the 1990s. …

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