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August 3, 2006

Police Stings of Gun Dealers Reduce the Supply of New Guns to Criminals

A series of undercover police sting operations in the Chicago area against gun dealers suspected of making illegal gun sales led to a 46 percent reduction in the supply of new guns to criminals, according to a study conducted by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for Gun Policy and Research. The study is published in the August 3, 2006, edition of the journal Injury Prevention.

Daniel Webster, ScD, MPH, lead author and co-director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research, said, “This study confirms prior research indicating that certain gun stores are important conduits for guns into the illegal market. Our study is the first to show that you can do something about that. Just as prior studies have found that well-publicized crackdowns on businesses that illegally sell alcohol or tobacco to underage youth lead to reductions in those sales, Chicago’s crackdown on suspect gun dealers led to fewer new guns in the hands of criminals.”

Undercover police stings were conducted in gun shops in 1998 and 1999 in the metropolitan areas surrounding Chicago, Ill., Detroit, Mich., and Gary, Ind. principally to gather evidence for each city’s lawsuit against gun manufacturers, distributors and retailers for their alleged role in supplying guns to criminals. In many instances, gun retailers sold weapons to undercover officers in the belief that the guns were intended for a third party, which is a violation of federal law. Chicago was the only city that followed the gun stings with criminal indictments and convictions of gun dealers.

The researchers analyzed sales data of 120,549 guns confiscated from criminals between 1996 and 2002 in the three cities that conducted the stings and three Midwest cities that did not conduct gun dealer stings. Because the intervention was focused on deterring illegal sales by retailers, the study tracked trends for “new trafficked guns”—guns recovered in the hands of a criminal who was not the original purchaser, less than one year after retail sale.

In addition to the decline in supply of new trafficked guns to criminals in Chicago, the researchers also report a decline in new guns used in crimes in the Detroit area following the undercover gun dealer stings there. However, the decline was more gradual and less dramatic than that observed in Chicago. There were no significant changes in the supply of new guns to criminals in Gary or in the three comparison cities (St. Louis, Cleveland and Cincinnati) that did not conduct stings of gun dealers.

Jon Vernick, JD, MPH, study co-author and co-director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research, noted, “Police stings of gun dealers could be an effective tool for cities dealing with gun-related crimes. One practical advantage is that they do not require new legislation to implement.”

Effects of undercover police stings of gun dealers on the supply of new guns to criminals” was written by D.W. Webster, M.T. Bulzacchelli, A.M. Zeoli and J.S. Vernick.

The study was funded by grants from The Overbrook Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and The Joyce Foundation.

Public Affairs media contacts for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: Kenna Lowe or Tim Parsons at 410-955-6878 or paffairs@jhsph.edu.