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Frequency of and responses to illegal activity related to commerce in firearms: findings from the Firearms Licensee Survey
  1. Garen J Wintemute
  1. Correspondence to Dr Garen J Wintemute, Department of Emergency Medicine, School of Medicine, University of California, Sacramento, CA 95817, USA; gjwintemute{at}


Background Firearms may be obtained illegally from federally-licensed dealers and pawnbrokers through surrogate (straw) purchases, undocumented purchases and theft. Some retailers knowingly make illegal sales.

Objective To obtain information about the frequency of and risk factors for these events, and retailers’ reactions to them, directly from licensed retailers.

Methods Survey of a random sample of 1601 licensed dealers and pawnbrokers in 43 states who were believed to sell ≥50 firearms annually, conducted by mail during June–August 2011.

Results The response rate was 36.9%, typical of establishment surveys using such methods. In the preceding year, 67.3% of respondents experienced attempted straw purchases; 42.4% experienced undocumented purchase attempts. For each event, 10% reported ≥1 occurrence/month. A quarter (25.6%) experienced firearm theft in the preceding 5 years. Pawnbroker status, sales volume, denied sales and sales of firearms that were subsequently traced by law enforcement were associated with all outcomes in multivariate analysis. Estimates of retailer involvement in illegal sales (median 3%, IQR 1–10%) were related in multivariate analysis to respondents’ age and sex, and to denied sales. In a hypothetical case involving 50 illegal sales, respondents recommended prolonged incarceration (median 10 years, IQR 5–20 years) and a substantial fine (median $50 000, IQR $10 000–$250 000) for retailers and made similar recommendations for buyers.

Conclusions Attempts to acquire firearms illegally from licensed dealers and pawnbrokers are common. Characteristics associated with frequency of occurrence may facilitate prevention efforts. Licensed retailers consider selling and buying firearms illegally to be serious crimes.

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