The adage, "If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns," has been around at least since the 1980s. During an appearance on WPRO's Matt Allen show, state Rep. Michael Chippendale, a Republican from Foster, made a similar point when talking about gun owners and the fact that it is illegal in Rhode Island for state government to maintain a gun registry.
"I think if we were to analyze all police records, we'd find that crimes that occur with a firearm are not perpetrated by lawful firearm owners," he said. "I would say the vast, overwhelming majority of them are committed by people who don’t legally possess that firearm in the first place. So they wouldn't show up on any sort of a register because they didn't obtain it legally. There's a strong argument that is supported by data, a lot of data, to support that point."
It seems reasonable that most criminals probably wouldn’t go through legal channels to get the weapon they use in a crime, but we were interested in determining whether that was true for the overwhelming majority of cases.
So we asked Chippendale about the data.
He emailed us to say his data disappeared when his computer died about a month ago.
But he said an analysis of crimes in Providence in 2012 by a firearms advocacy group showed that, as he remembered it, among 110 or so actual arrests in which a firearm was seized, the weapon was returned to the owner in fewer than 10 instances. Those, of course, would be the legal owners.
When we asked him for hard evidence, he sent us several Internet links, none of which directly addressed the question.
It turns out, despite Chippendale’s assertion, there's not a lot of data to support his point.
In Rhode Island, we checked with the attorney general's office, Providence's commissioner of public safety, and the Superior Court, which has its own gun court. None collect data in a form that would allow easy analysis of the question.
The commissioner, Steven Pare, expressed surprise that any of the guns seized in 2012 would have been returned. "It's rare that we return a gun that's been seized" unless it's returned to someone who reported it stolen, he said.
Nationally, we checked with some firearm groups and academics who study gun violence. None who responded had statistics that addressed the issue.
"You're probably not going to find direct evidence of the statement, since law enforcement agencies don't generally check specifically for legal possession, and certainly don't keep any centralized data that can be used to assess the claim," said David M. Kennedy, director of the National Network for Safe Communities and the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
Nonetheless, Kennedy said Chippendale’s statement "is absolutely true. The overwhelming majority of gun crime is committed by chronic offenders who are legally prohibited from owning firearms; they have felony records or domestic violence misdemeanors, which are disqualifying under federal law. So by definition they can't own guns legally."
We did, however, manage to find two sources of hard data.
In 1997, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics surveyed more than 203,000 prisoners.
Among state prison inmates, only 14 percent reported getting their weapon from a retail outlet such as a store, pawn shop, flea market or gun show. An additional 13 percent said they had purchased it or obtained it in trade from a family member or friend, which wouldn't necessarily make them legal owners, especially in states like Rhode Island that require a background check with a private sale.
Overall, the study found, no more than one quarter were legal owners of their weapons, assuming the inmates interviewed were telling the truth about whether their firearm acquisition was legal.
The other source is a December 2012 study that looked at handgun-tracing data for firearms recovered by the police between 2003 and 2006, as logged through the California Dealer Record of Sale system, which tracks sales of firearms beyond the initial dealer.
The team led by Glenn Pierce of Northeastern University, in Boston, found that in 31 percent of the cases, the gun belonged to the people who were found with them. In fewer than half the cases -- 47 percent -- the last recorded owners and the people who possessed the guns were different. In 22 percent of the cases, there was not enough information to make a determination.
Pierce cautioned that some of these 10,273 confiscations don't include the types of gun-related crimes that Chippendale was talking about. For example, they include cases in which guns happened to be recovered during routine traffic stops. If those are taken out, he said, "my guess is there would be the same or even fewer legally owned guns."
Rep. Michael Chippendale said: "The vast overwhelming majority of [crimes that occur with a firearm] are committed by people who don’t legally possess that firearm in the first place."
Chippendale was wrong when he said there was "a lot of data" to back his claim. We found very little.
The few studies we did find suggested that at least a majority of perpetrators of gun crimes don’t legally possess the guns they used. And the experts we talked with generally backed that up.
Allowing for some hyperbole on Chippendale's part, and given all of the uncertainties in the data, we rate his statement Mostly True.
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