Guns in Public Places: Civilian Gun Carrying

This is the eleventh post in a series about Reducing Gun Violence in the United States. The previous post described Waiting Periods and Red Flag Laws.

Up to this point, we’ve explored quite a bit about who can purchase guns, how to purchase them, and what restrictions exist. In this post, I’ll explore different types of civilian gun carrying in public, how that carrying has changed over time, what laws enable it, and what effects civilian gun carrying have on firearm violence.

Civilian Gun Carrying

Two primary forms of public gun carrying exist:

  • Open carry, in which one can generally see the gun someone is carrying; for example:
    • A handgun openly strapped to a belt
    • A rifle slung on someone’s back
  • Concealed carry, in which the gun is concealed from view; for example:
    • In a purse
    • In a holster underneath clothing

Open Carry

No broad federal laws exist that regulate open carry of firearms. Most states allow open carry of either handguns, long guns, or both. Some states require a permit for open carry, but most do not. Some states also limit where firearms can be openly carried; for example, restricting open carry of guns in religious buildings or college campuses.

Concealed Carry

Similar to open carry, no broad federal laws exist that regulate concealed carry of firearms. Unlike open carry, every state allows concealed carry in some form. Most states require some type of permit or license for concealed carry. These permits often exempt the permit holder from a federal background check when purchasing a firearm, and also often offer reciprocity between states (a permit in one state may be valid in another without any other action from the permit holder). Some states recognize all concealed carry permits from other states, while others only recognize a select group of other states’ permits (or none at all).

Concealed carry laws fall into three groups:

  • May issue
  • Shall issue (aka “Right to Carry”)
  • Permitless (aka “Right to Carry”)

May issue laws are the most strict. They include baseline requirements for carrying a concealed gun in public, such as having no felony convictions or age restrictions. In addition, even if those requirements are met, the state is not obligated to issue a permit – they might deny issuing a permit based on some likelihood that the permit holder might hurt themselves or others. This is generally called “permit discretion”.

Shall issue laws are less strict. They include similar kinds of baseline requirements as may issue laws, but unlike may issue laws, if a permit applicant meets the requirements, a permit will be issued. The state does not have discretion.

Permitless laws are the least strict. As long as you are legally allowed to own a firearm, then permitless laws allow you to carry it concealed in public with no extra permit or license.

Shall issue and permitless laws are often referred to together as “Right to Carry” laws, which we’ll explore in more depth later in this post.

As of July 2019:

  • eight states have may issue laws
  • 29 states have shall issue laws
  • 13 states have permitless laws

As seen above, most of the country falls into the shall issue law group, with 84% of states being “Right to Carry” states (42 of them).

Differences in Concealed Carry

Concealed carry laws vary significantly in their implementation and requirements, for example, in:

  • what entity issues the permit (the state / the county / localities / courts)
  • how long the permit lasts
  • if college campus carry is allowed
  • state residency requirements
  • age requirements (18 / 21 / other)
  • “good cause” requirements (dangerous job / safety threatened / etc)
  • suitability requirements (health, criminal record, community reputation)

Generally, the amount of discretion that states have on whether they must issue a permit varies widely.

Training Requirements

Training requirements for concealed carry permits vary significantly as well. Some states require specific courses that need be taken, such as safe storage, specific laws, or specific use cases for guns. Some states allow online courses.

A notable data point: of the 31 states that require training courses for concealed carry of a firearm, only 18 of them require actually firing a gun. In some cases, that just means “you’ve fired a gun on a firing range”, while others indicate some level of proficiency, such as target accuracy.

Yet, while it is good that 31 states have training requirements, none of those 31 require the applicant to demonstrate competency in decision-making with regards to firearms, such as knowing when it is lawful or justified to use a concealed firearm.

“Right to Carry” Laws

Over the last forty years, there has been a significant shift in the “Right to Carry” law landscape in the states.

Concealed Carry Laws in 1980

In 1980, the majority of states were “no issue” law states – carrying a concealed firearm was not allowed at all. Many more states were “may issue” states (with strict restrictions), with three “shall issue” states. Only one state did not require any extra licensing or permit to carry a concealed firearm in most public spaces – Vermont.

Concealed Carry Laws in 1990

Fast forward ten years to 1990:

  • More states became “shall issue” states, making it relatively easy for individuals who can legally own guns in their home to legally carry them in public and in a vehicle.

Concealed Carry Laws in 2000

Fast forward another ten years to 2000:

  • More dramatic changes, with “shall issue” laws becoming the dominant laws across the states
  • Few states with “may issue” laws
  • Very few states with “no issue” laws

Concealed Carry Laws in 2010

Fast forward another ten years to 2010:

  • Almost all states are “shall issue” states
  • Alaska joins Vermont in being the second state requiring no permit or extra licensing to carry a concealed firearm in public spaces

Concealed Carry Laws in 2017

Fast forward seven years to 2017:

  • Most states are “shall issue” states
  • Twelve states require no permitting or extra licensing for carrying a concealed firearm in public
  • Only eight states are restrictive “may issue” states
  • No states prohibit concealed carry of firearms entirely

With all of this change, we can look at research on how this has affected society overall.

One of the first early research results showed, in 1998, that more people were carrying concealed guns as a result of these laws. The researchers theorized that this would deter and prevent crimes, and it presented evidence that this was the case. Unfortunately, the data and results were closely scrutinized and were found to have major data and research errors, invalidating the conclusions of this first study (sources: Crime and Deterrence, Firearms and Violence, Impact of Right to Carry)

Newer research, since that time, has uncovered a variety of effects about the rise of “right to carry” laws (source: Right to Carry Laws), primarily:

  • Arming citizens in public does have benefits
    • Some harm, violence, and crime is deterred
  • Benefits are outweighed by the risks, however
    • More harms, violence, and crime is actually created than is reduced

Why might this be the case? “Right to Carry” laws enable more guns to be available in public, both on a person and in vehicles for criminals to steal. Criminals might also suspect that in the course of committing crimes, they will have a higher chance of encountering an armed civilian, and so they themselves carry more guns during their criminal activities. Sometimes, these findings are directly connected to a rise in general fear in society that other people might be carrying guns, so individuals think the best thing to do is to carry a gun themselves. This leads to an “arms race” of civilians carrying guns in public.

Percent increase in violent crime every year after a “Right to Carry” law is in effect (source: Right to Carry Laws)

A 2018 study looked at how “right to carry” laws are likely to have impacted violent crime rates over time, and found a clear link between the number of years that a “right to carry” law was in place and the percent increase in violent crime. After seven years, the increase in violent crime was statistically significant (essentially unmistakable), with an increase in 11 – 14% overall.


Also revealed in that study time period, in which 33 states passed “right to carry laws”,

  • the murder rates were estimated to have increased by 10% during the ten year period after such laws went into effect

Two other studies in 2017 and 2018 looked at how “right to carry” laws impacted homicide rates, looking at states with “shall issue” laws. Those studies found (sources: Easiness of Legal Access, Homicide in Urban Counties):

  • “right to carry” laws were associated with a 6.5% increase in overall homicide rates between 1991 and 2015
  • “right to carry” laws were associated with a 7% increase in firearm homicide rates

Change in Firearm Homicide in Missouri vs US, 2016-2017 (source: CDC WISQARS)

A final case study on “right to carry” laws: Missouri has greatly loosened restrictions on concealed carry of firearms over the last few decades. In 2017, it became a permitless concealed carry state. One year of firearm homicide data is available since it became a permitless state, and it clearly shows that rates increased from seven to nine homicides per 100,000 during that period, while rates stayed completely flat for the US overall.

“Stand your Ground” Laws

“Stand your Ground” laws define when it is legally justifiable to use lethal force, often referring to what is called the Castle Doctrine. While I’ll cover these laws in more detail later, in short, they say that when you’re faced with a dangerous situation, you are not legally obligated to retreat, and may use lethal force to defend yourself. The intent of these laws is to deter crime, under the hypothesis that if a potential burglar, robber, or assailant knows that a victim may defend themselves with lethal force, they may choose not to commit that crime.

“Stand your Ground” laws were first enacted by Utah in 1994, followed by Florida in 2005, and by 2018, 33 states had “Stand your Ground” laws. Some of the first studies of the effects of these laws include (sources: Evidence from Castle Doctrine, Homicide in Urban Counties, Unlawful Homicides in Florida):

  • burglary, robbery, and violent assault rates did not go up or down by the passing of these laws. So hypothesis that crime would be deterred was disproven.
  • homicides went up by 7 – 9% in large urban counties between 1994 and 2014
    • very specifically, an increase in justifiable homicides in addition to non-justifable homicides
  • homicides in Florida went by up an incredible 24% overall, including a 32% increase in firearm homicide, between 2005 and 2014

In short, the laws did not have the effect that they intended, and actually increased the rate of homicide.

The fact that concealed carry of firearms is now more accepted than it ever was before makes it important to keep these statistics in mind. As more people carry guns in public and have a legal justification for using their guns to defend themselves rather than trying to run away, it’s no surprise that the number of firearm homicides is up. In particular, in Florida, there were three times as many concealed carry permit holders in Florida in 2015 as there were in 2005 when the “Stand your Ground” law was first enacted (source: Evidence from Castle Doctrine).

One of the most famous highlights of “Stand your Ground” laws appeared in the slaying of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year old, in Florida. There is a substantial amount of research to show that there are implicit biases that are pervasive in the United States with regard to black individuals, especially black males. The implications of an ever-growing gun-carrying public may very well have serious implications on opportunities to act on racial bias in a lethal way.


Civilian Gun Carrying

  • “Open Carry” is the visible carrying of a gun in public
  • “Concealed Carry” is the non-visible carry of a gun in public. All states have allow concealed carry in some form.
  • Three types of concealed carry laws exist at the state level:
    • “May issue” (used by 8 states) – laws that have requirements and discretion over whether to allow an individual to carry a concealed firearm
    • “Shall issue” (used by 29 states) – laws that have requirements but no discretion if those requirements are met
    • “Permitless” (used by 13 states) – laws that do not require permits to carry a concealed firearm
  • Requirements and discretion vary, including permit duration, residency and age requirements, suitability requirements, criminal record, etc
  • Training requirements (31 states require this) also vary
    • No training requirements require proof of understanding the legal uses of the firearm or proof of good judgment

“Right to Carry” laws

  • “Right to Carry” laws embody that if requirements are met, the state must permit or allow concealed carry by a licensed individual
  • Dramatic shift away from “No licensing” to “Shall issue” laws nationwide since 1980
    • 1980: Five “Right to Carry” states (four “Shall issue” and one “Permitless”)
    • 2017: 41 “Right to Carry” states (29 “Shall issue” and 13 “Permitless”
  • “Right to Carry” laws have more negative effects that positive ones
    • 11 – 14% increase in violent crime after seven years of having a “Right to Carry” law vs not having one
    • 6 – 7% increase in homicide rates over a 25 year period

“Stand your Ground” laws

  • “Stand your Ground” laws define when it is legally justifiable to use lethal force against rather than retreat from danger
  • These laws do not decrease burglary, theft, or violent crime as they had intended
  • They increase homicide rates by 7 – 9% in large urban areas over a 20 year period
  • Over 20 years, Florida’s “Stand your Ground” law:
    • increased the overall homicide rate by 24%
    • increased the firearm homicide rate by 32%


  • Crime and Deterrence – a flawed 1998 study claiming that concealed carry laws deter violence crime
  • Firearms and Violence – a 2005 book which identified research and result errors in the Crime and Deterrence study above
  • Impact of Right to Carry – a 2014 study continuing to examine and further refute the conclusions from the Crime and Deterrence study above
  • Easiness of Legal Access – a 2017 study examining the relationship between “shall issue” laws, “may issue” laws, and homicide rates
  • Homicide in Urban Counties – a 2018 study evaluating the effects of firearm laws on homicide in large, urban counties
  • Right to Carry Laws – a 2018 study estimating the impact that adopting Right to Carry laws have on violent crime
  • CDC WISQARS – a public database that provides fatal and nonfatal injury, violent death, and cost of injury data.
  • Evidence from Castle Doctrine – a 2012 study examining whether aiding self-defense via standing one’s ground deters crime or, alternatively, increases homicide
  • Homicide in Urban Counties – a 2018 study testing the effects of firearm laws on homicide in large, urban U.S. counties
  • Unlawful Homicides in Florida – a 2017 study examing the association between the enactment of a “Stand your Ground” self-defense laws and Florida homicides

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Evidence-Based Policies to Prevent Gun Violence: Waiting Periods and Red Flag Laws

This is the tenth post in a series about Reducing Gun Violence in the United States. The previous post described Gun Dealer Oversight and Regulation.

In this post, I’ll explore using waiting periods and red flag laws to prevent gun violence.

For those who want to see the highlights without going through the data, skip right to the conclusions at the bottom of this post.

Waiting Periods

Recall from my previous post on Background Checks that if a federal background check initiated at a licensed gun dealer is not completed within three days, the sale may proceed. Because of this relatively short period for federal law enforcement to complete a check, several states have “waiting period” laws to prevent a purchaser from obtaining their purchased firearm, and these range from three to fourteen days. During this waiting period, the purchaser may not take possession of their legally purchased firearm. These waiting periods have two primary effects:

  • allow federal law enforcement more time to perform a background check
  • add in a “cooling off” period to reduce the chance of a newly purchased gun to be used in an impulsive, harmful way

Many waiting period laws apply to all gun sales at licensed dealers, but a few only apply to handguns or certain types of long guns such as semi-automatic rifles.

States which require a waiting period before taking possession of a gun (source: Giffords Waiting Periods)

Ten states have waiting periods as of 2019.

Do waiting periods on firearm possession have any effect?

Waiting periods of taking gun possession are associated with (sources: State Firearm Laws, Looking Down the Barrel, Handgun Legislation)

  • lower rates of guns moving from state to state for criminal use
  • lower rates of firearm suicide (~ 3%)

Waiting periods have not been shown to have an effect on firearm homicide rates; unlike purchaser licensing requirements (which, by design, include built-in waiting periods).

Red Flag Laws

Red Flag laws are another method that has been shown to be very effective at reducing gun violence, in particular, suicide.

In many cases, the pretext for removal of firearms from a person is based on that person having a prohibited civil status, such as being a felon. These status categories, based on previous actions of the individual, do not cover many people who are not criminals, have no domestic violence history or history of institutionalization for mental illness. These individuals might show warning signs of violent behavior, such as (but not limited to) substance abuse issues, anger issues, or suicidal thoughts to which existing firearm removal laws do not apply.

Red flag laws, which exist at the state level, fill these gaps. In practice, red flag laws allow family members, intimate partners, or law enforcement to petition a court on their own for the temporary removal of a firearm from an individual who they think is at high risk of committing gun violence. These orders are known commonly as Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPOs), though states use different names for them. The individuals who can petition for removal vary depending on the state. A judge may issue what is known as an ex-parte order for the removal, meaning that the person deemed to be at risk does not need to be present before the order may be signed. If a court approves the order, the subject of the order has the opportunity to be part of a hearing of the court to challenge the order before it takes effect, where they are allowed legal counsel, and the state must provide clear and convincing evidence that the individual is still at high-risk. If either the subject of the order does not desire a hearing, or the court rules in favor of the state, the order directs law enforcement to temporarily remove all of the firearms from the subject. These orders are civil procedures, not criminal procedures, so they do not go onto a person’s criminal record.

States where red flag laws have been enacted and are being considered

Connecticut and Indiana were the first states to enact red flag laws, in the wake of publically notable shootings. Research on the use of these laws indicates that individuals subject to these orders typically have many guns – on average, seven per person. Because the majority of people who would use a gun to end their life would have been legally allowed to purchase one on the day of their death, the way most of these laws are used are by concerned family members who fear a relative is at high-risk for suicide.

Two studies have shown the effectiveness of these laws:

  • A 2016 study has shown that for around every ten ERPOs issued, one life has been saved (source: Implementation and Effectiveness)
  • A 2018 study showed that Indiana’s law decreased its firearm suicide rate by 7.5% and Connecticut’s law decreased its firearm suicide rate by 13.7% (source: Effects of Seizure Laws)

Red flag laws have been implemented in 17 states as of 2019 and, depending on the state, have different names for the orders that they allow:

  • Extreme Risk Protection Orders
  • Risk-based gun removal orders
  • Red-flag law orders
  • Risk protection orders
  • Gun violence restraining orders (GVROs)
  • Proceedings for the Seizure and Retention of a Firearm
  • risk warrants


Waiting Periods

  • State waiting periods laws address weaknesses in federal firearms laws
    • Only ten states implement waiting periods as of 2019
  • They give law enforcement more time to perform background checks and create a “cooling off” period for buyers who might use firearms impulsively
  • Waiting periods:
    • decrease rates of guns moving from state to state for criminal use
    • decrease rates of firearm suicide

Red Flag laws

  • State red flag allows allow proactive, temporary removal of firearms from individuals deemed to be at high-risk for firearm violence
    • Orders are commonly known as Extreme Risk Protection Orders
  • Family members, intimate partners, and law enforcement are commonly enabled to petition a court for proactive removal
  • Individuals subject to an order may have legal counsel and force the state to show clear and convincing evidence before an order goes into effect
  • Studies in Indiana and Connecticut show a 7.5% and 13.7% reduction in suicide rates, respectively

Next up: Civilian Gun Carrying


  • Giffords Waiting Periods – a website showing use of waiting periods in different states
  • State Firearm Laws – a 2018 study examining the relationship between state firearm laws and the extent of interstate transfer of guns
  • Looking Down the Barrel – a 2017 study examining the effect of purchase delays on firearm-related homicides and suicides
  • Handgun Legislation – a 2017 study examing the extent to which four laws regulating handgun ownership were associated with statewide suicide rate changes
  • Implementation and Effectiveness – a 2016 study examining the effects of gun removals in Connecticut following its ERPO law
  • Effects of Seizure Laws – a 2018 study evaluating whether risk-based firearm seizure laws in Connecticut and Indiana affect suicide rates

Read More

Evidence-Based Policies to Prevent Gun Violence: Background Checks and Purchaser Licensing

This is the eighth post in a series about Reducing Gun Violence in the United States. The previous post described Mental Illness, Violence, and Laws.

In this post, I’ll explore two methods designed to keep guns out of the hands of people who are prohibited from owning them: background checks and purchaser licensing laws.

Background Checks

The Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act of 1993 created the federal National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which enables federally licensed firearm dealers to conduct background checks for gun sales. These dealers are required by that law to perform a background check before proceeding with any gun sale.

When conducting a background check, sellers are often immediately alerted that a sale may proceed. Sometimes, sellers are immediately alerted that a sale is prohibited for any reason, or delayed if more time is needed to perform the background check.

In the case of a delay, law enforcement has three days to complete any additional checks, after which the sale may go forward if it does not have a decision, even if the sale would have been prohibited by law. If law enforcement later realizes that the sale should have been prohibited, it is obligated to find the purchaser and retrieve the firearm obtained.

Below is a flow chart of how the federal background check system works, starting from the left and moving to the right by following the arrows.

NICBCS Process for Purchasing a Firearm from a Dealer (source: GAO Gun Control)

In theory, this system should work fairly well. However, due to states and government agencies not always reporting records that might trigger a sale denial, gaps in records exist for individuals to which sales should be prohibited. These gaps can come from mental health records, criminal prohibitions, or other sources. As a result of these gaps, sales are sometimes made to individuals who would have been prohibited from owning a gun; and those individuals, on occasion, then use those weapons to commit violent acts.

States Requiring Private Sale Background Checks (source: Universal Background Checks)

While all sales of firearms by federally licensed dealers must go through background checks, only fourteen states require that private sales must also include a background check, such as individuals meeting through Craigslist or friend-of-a-friend.

Do background checks on firearms purchases have any effect?

Enforcing background checks for firearms sales have been shown to (sources: Firearm Trafficking, Reducing Gun Violence, Comprehensive Background Check Policies, Firearm Laws)

  • reduce interstate trafficking of firearms
  • serve as an important framework for other laws to screen individuals from purchasing guns

In particular, states with weak gun laws that did not require private sale background checks regularly have large exports of guns to states with strong gun laws. Universal background checks in all states would help reduce this.

However, background checks alone have not been shown to reduce rates of gun homicide.

Purchaser Licensing

Handgun purchaser licensing laws require that prospective handgun purchasers obtain a permit to buy a firearm from a state or local government before a purchase can be made. As part of applying for a license, applicants might submit a photograph, fingerprints, or a copy of a government-issued id. They may need to be interviewed by a law enforcement officer, and they may be required to show proof of completing a firearm safety training course.

States and local governments that have licensing requirements take thirty days on average to process the license application, which may involve a background check. States or cities may have access to more records that have not yet been submitted to the federal National Instant Background Check System yet, which increases the chance that a prohibited purchaser would be denied from being able to purchase a handgun.

States Requiring Licenses for Every Handgun Purchase (source: Universal Background Checks)

Only nine states require obtaining a license before purchasing a handgun, and the licensing varies:

  • permits have varying expiration dates
  • law enforcement’s capability to deny permits to qualified but dangerous applicants vary
    • for example, denying a permit to an individual with an arrest record for anger issues but no convictions
  • safety training requirements for prospective purchasers vary

Individuals committing gun crimes in states with purchaser licensing laws often use guns obtained from states with weaker licensing laws. Like the universal background check requirements described above, a strong body of evidence shows that handgun purchaser licensing laws are associated with fewer guns illegally moving across state lines from states with weak gun laws to those with strong gun laws.

Do purchaser licensing restrictions on handgun purchases have any effect?

Unlike universal background checks, handgun purchaser licensing laws reduce firearm homicide and suicide as well as prevent guns from being illegally diverted to criminals through dealers. A likely explanation for this is that direct interaction with law enforcement, a background check, and a built-in waiting period counteracts impulsive purchasers to harm oneself or others. Among the effects: (sources: Firearm Trafficking, Reducing Gun Violence, Initial Impact, Impact of Sales Laws, Association Between Law and Homicides, Effects of Changes, Effects of the Repeal, Evaluating Missouri, Association in Urban Counties)

  • Connecticut’s 1995 licensing law (including in-person application, fingerprinting, and safety training) cut the firearm homicide rate by 40% and the firearm suicide rate by 15% after ten years
  • Missouri’s licensing law was eliminated in 2007; the firearm homicide rate went up by 27% and the firearm suicide rate went up by 16% afterward
  • In large urban counties, purchaser licensing laws are associated with 11% reductions in firearm homicide


Background Checks

  • All firearm sales from gun dealers must go through the federal instant background check system
    • In practice, this system is not perfect due to missing records from states or government agencies which would prohibit sales in some cases
  • State background check laws address weaknesses in federal firearms law
    • Only fourteen states require background checks between individuals (private sales)
  • Background checks:
    • reduce illegal gun transfers from states with weak gun laws to states with strong gun laws
    • ensure that restrictions for purchasing and possessing firearms are enforced
    • do not reduce rates of gun homicide

Purchaser Licensing

  • Purchaser handgun licensing laws require prospective purchasers to obtain a permit before purchase
    • May include direct interaction with law enforcement, fingerprinting, safety training
  • Only nine states require purchasers to have a permit to purchase handguns
  • Handgun purchaser licensing laws:
    • Significantly reduce firearm homicide (between 11 – 40%)
    • Reduce firearm suicide (~ 16%)
    • Reduce illegal diversion of guns to criminals

Next up: Gun Dealer Oversight and Regulation


  • GAO Gun Control – a 2016 GAO report on analyzing available data for improving background checks involving domestic violence records
  • Universal Background Checks – a report from the Giffords Law center on universal background checks
  • Firearm Trafficking – a 2009 study investigating the relationship between oversight of gun dealers and state regulation of private sales of handguns with rates of intrastate gun trafficking
  • Reducing Gun Violence – a 2013 paper on informing policy on reducing gun violence overall
  • Comprehensive Background Check Policies – a 2018 paper estimating the effect of the repeal of comprehensive background check laws
  • Firearm Laws – a 2018 study designed to test the effects of firearm laws on homicide in large, urban U.S. counties
  • Initial Impact – a 2017 study assessing the impact of Maryland’s Firearm Safety Act (FSA) of 2013 on indicators of diversion of handguns to prohibited persons
  • Impact of Sales Laws – a 2015 study examining the effect of more restrictive state gun laws and regulations on the illegal diversion of guns to criminals
  • Association Between Law and Homicides – a 2015 study to estimate the effect of Connecticut’s implementation of a handgun permit-to-purchase law in October 1995 on subsequent homicides
  • Effects of Changes – a 2015 study evaluating how permit-to-purchase (PTP) laws for handguns could potentially reduce suicides by making it more difficult for persons at risk of suicide to purchase a handgun
  • Effects of the Repeal – a 2014 study estimating the impact of Missouri’s 2007 repeal of its permit-to-purchase handgun law on states’ homicide rates
  • Evaluating Missouri – a 2019 study of the effect of the repeal of Missouri’s permit-to-purchase handgun law on its firearm homicide rate
  • Association in Urban Counties – a 2018 study designed to test the effects of firearm laws on homicide in large, urban U.S. counties

Read More

Evidence-Based Policies to Prevent Gun Violence: Gun Dealer Oversight and Regulation

This is the ninth post in a series about Reducing Gun Violence in the United States. The previous post described Background Checks and Purchaser Licensing.

In this post, I’ll explore using gun dealer oversight and regulation as a method to keep guns out of the hands of people who are prohibited from owning them.

For those who want to see the highlights without going through the data, skip right to the conclusions at the bottom of this post.

Reducing Gun Diversion to Criminals through Gun Dealer Oversight and Regulation

How big is the problem of guns falling into the hands of criminals?

Let’s review some data from my previous post on Gun Markets, Ownership, and Violence Risk, and recall how many guns enter the market illegally via different avenues. In particular, I want to draw attention to three specific entry points:

  • Straw purchasers / straw purchase rings
  • Diverted firearms stolen from licensed dealers
  • Firearms diverted by licensed dealers

Data from Federal Firearms Trafficking Investigations, 1999-2002 (source: Illegal Gun Market)

Let’s first focus on straw purchasers / straw purchase rings. This represents cases where someone purchased a gun for someone else (which is illegal). This is a fairly common practice (more than 38 thousand firearms recovered in a three year period) in which gun dealers “look the other way” or simply are not doing a sufficiently careful job selling guns to those who are allowed to have them. This represents the largest number of firearm trafficking investigations by far, and there are a variety of voluntary efforts that honest gun dealers are participating in to help identify these purchasers.

Next, let’s look at firearms stolen from licensed dealers. As it turns out, there are no federal laws that set standards for securing a gun dealer’s property against theft. Think about how easy it is for a criminal to break a glass window of gun shop overnight and make off with a large number of guns.

Finally, let’s look at firearms “diverted” by licensed dealers. Diversion, in this case, means a gun dealer who is actively and knowingly handing guns to criminals. Note that over 55 thousand guns were trafficked by “dirty” dealers in a three year period – more than any other type of gun trafficking. Clearly, this is a huge problem.

A Case Study: Badger Guns & Ammo

Let’s take a look at one particular investigation into firearms diverted by licensed dealers, just one of the 158 investigations conducted between 1999 and 2002. The study is of a gun shop in West Milwaukee, Wisconsin – Badger Guns & Ammo.

In 1999, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) identified Badger of being the number one seller of guns used in crimes in the US. Remember from my post on Gun Markets, Ownership, and Violence Risk that the ATF automatically receives information about each and every gun that is sold and anytime local, state, or federal law enforcement officers recover a gun from a crime scene or criminal suspect. This 1999 report made national news, and two days later, Badger announced publically that they were going to make voluntary changes to their sales activities.

Badger was not the only gun dealer being highlighted as selling many guns used in crimes; many dealers in the late 1990s and early 2000s were being flagged in this way. Some of these large gun dealers flagged had “friends” in high places, including politicians like Todd Tiahrt. Does that name sound familiar? Recall the Tiahrt Amendment of 2005 from my post on Laws, the Second Amendment, Litigation, and Obstacles to Research and Policy – the law that:

  • limits the availability and use of gun trace data, by prohibiting the ATF from releasing that data to anyone other than a law enforcement agency or prosecutor in connection with a criminal investigation
  • prohibits the ATF from requiring gun dealers from doing inventories of their firearms as part of compliance inspections
  • requires the FBI to destroy firearm license background check data within 24 hours after a background check is complete

Tiahrt essentially provided regulatory cover for shady gun dealers like Badger. Recall from that previous post on Laws that also in 2005, Congress passed yet another law, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (which provided broad protections to gun manufacturers and dealers from legal liability), which restricted lawsuits against gun dealers like Badger.

Ultimately, in 2006, the ATF recommended the revocation of the federal firearms dealer license from Badger, but not before thousands of guns were illegally made available to criminals who should not have had them.

Guns diverted to criminals within a year of retail sale, Badger vs other dealers (source: Temporal Association)

In the chart above, gun crime trace data was used from 1995 through 2005 from the Milwaukee Police Department, tracking guns sold by Badger and other dealers and then recovered from gun crimes within one year. The chart clearly shows a decrease in crime guns recovered within a year after Badger was identified as the number one seller of crime guns in the country – a decrease of approximately 77%. In short, the data transparency and reporting on gun crime trace data being available had a huge positive effect on guns sold by Badger being used in crimes.

Later in 2003, when the Tiahrt Amendment went into effect which eliminated this data transparency, an estimated 200% increase in guns sold by Badger and later used in crimes occurred within just another year or two.

The data clearly shows how powerful data transparency alone is in solving the problem of criminal diversion of guns – and how much the Tiahrt Amendment is a major contributor to this problem. Curiously, the impact of the Tiahrt Amendment does not show up with other gun dealers in as major way as Badger; perhaps this was because other gun dealers in the Milwaukee area were selling guns in a legal, responsible way.

Effects of Stings and Lawsuits against Gun Dealers on Gun Flows to Criminals (sources: Undercover Police Stings, Reducing Gun Violence)

In the late 1990s, the cities of Chicago and Detroit staged several straw gun purchase stings to disrupt the illegal diversion of guns from dealers. Data from studies about these sting operations, in which undercover law enforcement officers used fake straw purchasers making obvious attempts to illegally purchase guns for someone else, show a decrease of 62% of guns diverted illegally from Chicago dealers and a decrease of 36% of guns diverted illegally from Detroit dealers.

Officials from New York City saw this data and wanted to replicate the decrease in their city. New York state had very strict gun laws, and most of the guns in New York City were coming from states outside of New York which had much more lax gun restrictions. Rather than using sting operations, New York City successfully sued many out-of-state gun dealers in an attempt to effect changes in gun sale policies, like installing better on-site security or reducing employee theft. The result of these lawsuits, many of which were settled, was a huge, 82% reduction in guns sold by these dealers being diverted for criminal use.

How does data transparency affect criminal gun diversion?

A study of gun crime trace data from over fifty cities in various US states shows that when a state has stronger gun laws regulating dealers, including requirements like:

  • security cameras
  • proper storage and security of firearms
  • employee screening

gun diversion to criminals was lower; however, only when those checks were enforced (source: Seller Accountability Policies).

In short, strong gun oversight and regulation laws which require dealers to tighten up their operations lead to fewer guns diverted to criminals but only when they are enforced.


  • Close to 100,000 guns were trafficked due to illegal and poor safety practices by gun dealers between 1999 and 2003
    • This is a huge problem
  • Many of these illegally trafficked guns come from a small handful of dealers
  • Data transparency about dealers whose guns end up in the hands of criminals goes a long way in reducing gun trafficking
    • But laws like the Tiahrt Amendment make gun crime data transparency very hard
  • Law enforcement activities like gun dealer stings and lawsuits have had a big effect to reduce gun trafficking
  • Gun dealer regulations, including security, training, and storage requirements, work to prevent gun trafficking but only when those regulations are enforced with proper law enforcement oversight.

Next upWaiting Periods and Red Flag Laws


  • Temporal Association – a 2012 study of the number of guns diverted to criminals within a year of sale by gun dealers
  • Undercover Police Stings – a 2012 study of the effects of undercover police stings and lawsuits against gun dealers suspected of facilitating illegal gun sales in three US cities (Chicago, Detroit, Gary) on the flow of new firearms to criminals
  • Reducing Gun Violence – a 2013 paper on informing policy on reducing gun violence overall
  • Seller Accountability Policies – a 2009 study examining the associations between law enforcement agencies’ practices to promote compliance with gun sales laws and gun trafficking indicators

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