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Legal status and source of offenders' firearms in states with the least stringent criteria for gun ownership
  1. Katherine A Vittes,
  2. Jon S Vernick,
  3. Daniel W Webster
  1. Center for Gun Policy and Research, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, Maryland, USA
  1. Correspondence to Dr Katherine A Vittes, Center for Gun Policy and Research, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, 624 North Broadway, Baltimore, MD 21205, USA; kvittes{at}


Background Gun possession by high-risk individuals presents a serious threat to public safety. U.S. federal law establishes minimum criteria for legal purchase and possession of firearms; many states have laws disqualifying additional categories for illegal possession.

Methods We used data from a national survey of state prison inmates to calculate: 1) the proportion of offenders, incarcerated for crimes committed with firearms in 13 states with the least restrictive firearm purchase and possession laws, who would have been prohibited if their states had stricter gun laws; and 2) the source of gun acquisition for offenders who were and were not legally permitted to purchase and possess firearms.

Results Nearly three of ten gun offenders (73 of 253 or 28.9%) were legal gun possessors but would have been prohibited from purchasing or possessing firearms when committing their most recent offense if their states had stricter prohibitions. Offenders who were already prohibited under current law acquired their gun from a licensed dealer, where a background check is required, five times less often than offenders who were not prohibited (3.9% vs. 19.9%; χ2=13.31; p≤0.001). Nearly all (96.1%) offenders who were legally prohibited, acquired their gun from a supplier not required to conduct a background check.

Conclusions Stricter gun ownership laws would have made firearm possession illegal for many state prison inmates who used a gun to commit a crime. Requiring all gun sales to be subject to a background check would make it more difficult for these offenders to obtain guns.

  • Firearm policy
  • interventions
  • policy
  • mechanism
  • violence
  • guns
  • homicide

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  • Funding This study was funded by a grant from The Joyce Foundation. Grant no: 07-30160.

  • Competing interests None.

  • Ethics approval Ethics approval was provided by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Institutional Review Board.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Data sharing statement The study analyses data from a publically-available secondary database.