Illegal Guns and ”Disadvantage”

It is not news that “illegal guns” are the bulk of crime guns and that they are endemic in poor, inner-city neighborhoods. But it is good to have another datapoint.


  • Legal availability of firearms is not correlated with firearm homicides.
  • However, illegal firearm availability is.
  • The number of firearm laws is not associated with firearm homicides either.
  • Firearm homicide rates are amplified by economic and social disadvantages and family disruption.

The Study and Proxy Paranoia

A 2021 study, 1 attempted to gauge legal and illegal firearm availability and measure those against firearm homicides. The authors also examined social factors including family disruption, economic disadvantage, youth disengagement, and more.

The study represents an innovative approach to segregating misuse of legally obtained guns and illegally obtained guns. Bureau of Justice Statistics - crime gun sourcesFor decades the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) has been reporting that 40% of crime guns come from “street” sources, and some portion of the 37% are via friends and family members (see table to the right); so for this new study to confirm that illegally obtained guns are the problem is expected.

But validation never hurts.

The problem is that there is no direct way to measure the number of illegal guns in circulation, nationally or locally. That’s because criminals are notoriously uncooperative in admitting to their unlawful activities. Borderline antisocial, they are. But via some proxies, the study authors could estimate the rate of legal gun availability (via the concentration of Federal Firearm Licensees, or FFLs) in a region and the localized rate of firearm theft and loss. Stolen guns are a portion of those used in crimes, including homicides, and thus this is not a horrible proxy.

But getting the source data from cops, indirectly through an anti-gun activist group might be horrid.

The Trace is a mouthpiece for the anti-gun lobby. If memory servers correctly, they got their start via the largesse of Michael Bloomberg, the walking bank vault of many anti-gun organizations (which would include the Bloomberg School Of Public Health at Johns Hopkins, given their third-rate criminology work). That the authors referred to The Trace as “an independent nonprofit news organization” borders on comedic.

That said, the Trace scraped crime gun data from law enforcement agencies via public records requests. Assuming that The Trace did not massage and edit the raw data, it is likely serviceable.

Poverty, Crime, and Violence

The authors calculated the incidence rate ratio (IRR) for a number of variables against firearm homicide rates. An incidence rate ratio is the ratio of two incidence rates (say, dividing the rate of firearm homicides by the rate of illegal firearms). In short, the higher the number, the more likely the one variable is contributive. In this example, the higher the rate of illegal guns in circulation, the higher the firearm homicide rate.

click for largerr sharable version

Reducing the authors’ sundry tables, we see a number of interesting things. Foremost, the concentration of legal guns at retail (the proxy being the various types of FFLs, shown in green bars) is basically static with the exception of “big box stores” that also sell guns. But the IRR for illegal guns is significantly high. The argument could be made that existing regulated retailing of guns is inconsequential to firearm homicide rates (and likely other gun crimes).

Where this gets a bit more depressing is the intersection of poverty and illegal guns. As we reported from another study, American inner cities are places of low trust and high violence. As such, getting a gun for both criminal use and self-defense is common. But the primary source for such is off the streets, as the BJS report shows us for every decade.

The Other Interesting Bits

To quote the study authors, “The index of state-level firearm laws is not significantly associated with firearm homicides, although it does correspond to greater non-firearm homicide.” Stated a bit more plainly, gun laws don’t prevent firearm homicides but may prevent self-defense from non-firearm murders. Unsurprising, really. With crime guns coming from the streets and self-defense guns coming from retails, not being able to restrict the former but restricting the latter would expectedly have this effect.

Also, as would be expected, there is an inverse relationship to the size of a local police community and the firearm homicide rate. Not as statistically compelling as the illegal gun availability rate, but it gives pause as to why the authors didn’t go one step further and discuss the specific intersection of high illegal gun availability and high police presence. Our curiosity is stoked.

Gun Sources and Laws

Notably, multiple different sources (BJS, Semenza et al., etc.) are pointing to the disconnect between legal and illegal guns, and their use in crime. Thus, proposed legislation to limit legal retail sales of guns would produce no results, and the failure to focus on illegal guns will only force poor inner city people to continue to live in the crossfire.


  1. Firearm Availability, Homicide, and the Context of Structural Disadvantage↩

This article first appeared on Gun Facts. Please make a donation directly to them at

0 0 votes
Article Rating

Follow The Gun Facts Project on:

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments