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Armed and prohibited: characteristics of unlawful owners of legally purchased firearms


Background A substantial proportion of individuals who lawfully purchase firearms later become unlawful owners ('prohibited firearm owners'), usually following events associated with an increased risk for future violence. This high-risk population has not previously been described. We aimed to characterise all individuals in California's Armed and Prohibited Persons System (APPS), a statewide programme for recovering firearms from individuals who legally purchased them and later became prohibited from ownership.

Methods We used univariate and bivariate statistics to describe and compare prohibited firearm owners in APPS with a random sample of non-prohibited firearm owners in relation to age, sex, race/ethnicity and type of firearms owned as of 1 February 2015. We also characterised the geographical distribution of prohibited firearm owners and described their prohibitions.

Results Of the 18 976 prohibited firearm owners, most were men (93%), half were white (53%) and the mean age was 47 years. Prohibited firearm owners were more likely to be male and to be black or Hispanic people than non-prohibited owners. Both prohibited and non-prohibited firearm owners had an average of 2.6 firearms, mostly handguns. Nearly half (48%) of prohibited firearm owners had a felony conviction. Extrapolating from our findings, we estimated that there are approximately 100 000 persons in the USA who unlawfully maintained ownership of their firearms following a felony conviction.

Conclusions Retention of firearms among persons who become lawfully prohibited from possessing them is common in California. Given the nationwide dearth of a programme to recover such weapons, this is likely true in other states as well.

  • firearm
  • violence
  • public health

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