Wanting to immerse myself in the scholarly world of firearms research, I attended my first ever meeting of the American Society of Criminology (ASC) in November 2013. The scale and scope of the meeting is amazing. According to Susan Case, administrator of the ASC, 3,217 individuals from 38 different countries registered for the conference. There were 909 sessions and 2,822 papers scheduled. The printed program ran to nearly 200 pages, with as many as 30 sessions running concurrently from 8:00 a.m. until nearly 6:30 p.m. for 3.5 days.
Because a meeting like this encourages as much participation as possible, the quality of the work presented varies greatly. Some papers I was really blown away by – like Yale University sociologist Andrew Papachristos’s work on networks of co-offenders in Chicago. Others I wanted to send the presenters – names withheld to protect the innocent – a bill for wasting my time.
But overall I learned a lot. This will be the first of several posts in which I summarize and reflect on some of what I found to be the more interesting ideas presented.
(N.b.: What is presented at a conference like this is not peer-reviewed or published research, so the findings should be taken as suggestive rather than definitive.)
Tita’s main area of expertise is violence research, and he is a member of the National Consortium on Violence Research (NCOVR). In 2006 he published an article with Anthony Braga (also on the panel), Greg Ridgeway, and Glenn Peirce, “Criminal Purchase of Ammunition.” Injury Prevention Vol 12, No. 5, Pp. 308 – 311. As the title suggests, this presentation “revists” that previous research.
Because a copy of the paper was not available, I will draw heavily on the earlier published study in this post.
The earlier study notes that “guns without ammunition are much less dangerous than loaded ones and . . . the unloaded gun is no more dangerous than any other blunt object.” Using an analogy to drug policy, in which both the agent of harm (the narcotic) and the instrument of delivery (syringe) are regulated, “gun policy has focused primarily on the instrument of delivery, firearms while eschewing efforts to limit access to ammunition, the actual agent of harm” (p. 308). However, Tita and his colleagues argued, “If gun-using criminals could be hindered from obtaining ammunition, it follows that gun violence may decline” (p. 308).
Lack of regulation of ammunition purchases has not always been the norm in American historically (and is not the norm in certain locales even today). The Gun Control Act of 1968 required federal licensing for ammunition dealers, required records be kept on all ammunition sales, and banned interstate transfers of ammunition to unlicensed purchasers. In 1982, sales of .22 caliber ammunition were removed from the record keeping requirement. The Firearms Owners Protection Act of 1986 then repealed the licensing and record keeping requirements, as well as the interstate transfer ban.
Regulations on ammunition are frequently proposed by advocates of gun control, including banning mail order sales, limiting the number of rounds that can be purchased, running NICS background checks on ammunition purchasers, requiring licensing of ammunition dealers with high licensing fees, and taxing ammunition itself at a high rate.
Interestingly, the same conditions which disqualify a person from purchasing firearms also apply to ammunition purchases. These include being underage, a convicted felon, subject to a restraining order, adjudicated mentally ill, and so on. However, unlike firearms purchases from licensed dealers, there is no requirement for background checks of ammunition purchasers so little is known about whether prohibited persons are purchasing ammunition and, if so, how much.
Tita’s work seeks to answer this empirical question. He does so by taking advantage of the “registry” approach to surveilling ammunition purchases in the City of Los Angeles. A 1998 ordinance there requires proof of identification and a thumbprint from all ammunition purchasers. Retailers do not police the purchases themselves, but simply provide the information they gather to law enforcement upon request. Using the registry, the research team ran post-facto background checks on ammunition purchasers in April and May of 2004.
Caveats: During the study time period, there were only 15 FFLs in all of Los Angeles that sold ammunition: eight sporting goods stores, three firing ranges, two law enforcement facilities, one war surplus store, and one small business that reloads ammunition for sale. The authors have data from 10 of those (data was not collected from the ammunition reload business, one of the sporting goods stores, and one of the firing ranges, in addition to the LE facilities which sell only to LEOs). Also, most of these FFLs are located in the San Fernando Valley in the northern part of LA, rather than in the higher crime areas in “South Central” LA. The data reported, therefore, are suggestive rather than definitive of ammunition purchases in Los Angeles, and tell us little about how ammunition is supplied to criminals in the highest crime areas of the LA metropolitan area.
Overall, in April and May 2004 there were 2,031 unique purchasers who made 2,540 transactions that resulted in the sale of 4,823 boxes of ammunition that totaled 436,956 rounds (pistol/rifle cartridges and shotgun shells).
Of these 2,031purchasers, Tita and colleagues found 52 (2.56%) were prohibited purchasers. They bought a total of 10,050 rounds, 2.3% of all the rounds purchased during the observation period.
In his 2013 study, again covering a 2 month period, Tita again finds 52 prohibited purchasers. But because the 2013 data collection took place during the post-Sandy Hook great ammo boom/shortage, this time there were a total of 4,443 purchasers, more than double the number in the earlier study. Thus, the percentage of purchasers in 2013 who were prohibited persons fell to 1.17 percent. Additionally, the total number of rounds purchased by the prohibited persons fell to 6,770, probably because there just was less ammunition to go around.
Of the 52 prohibited purchasers in 2013, 42 were felons, 5 had disqualifying misdemeanors, 1 had a protective order, and 4 were so-called “5150” (mental status) disqualifications.
Reflections on Findings
In their 2004 article, Tita and colleagues note that a “criminal background check would be an unnecessary inconvenience in about 97% of ammunition transactions in Los Angeles.” In 2013, it would be an unnecessary inconvenience for about 99% of purchasers.
They continue by noting that “in just two months [in 2004], prohibited persons acquired some 10,050 rounds through retail outlets.” In 2013, they acquired nearly 7,000 rounds. Is this an abnormally large amount of ammunition? Are felons stockpiling ammo? Although this may sound like a lot to someone not familiar with guns, 100 to 200 rounds of ammunition per buyer could be just an hour shooting at the range.
Also, while illegal, just because individuals are prohibited purchasers of ammunition does not mean they are buying the ammunition for criminal purposes. Unfortunately neither the 2004 nor the 2013 studies speak to whether the 52 prohibited persons who bought ammunition used the ammunition for criminal purposes.
The authors also recognize the old saw that “demand creates its own supply.” That, as with guns, if ammunition sales to prohibited persons are completely banned the likely outcome is going to be some substitution effect, wherein purchases made in legal markets will simply be made in illegal markets instead.
My final thought has to do with the move from suggestive research to definitive policy proposals. This issue is one that criminologists debate among themselves regularly (see, for example, a November 2013 special issue of the American Society of Criminology’s journal, Criminology & Public Policy, which examines “Criminology, Causality, and Public Policy”). There is no simple relationship between the research and policy. Thus, the language Tita and his colleagues use in their 2006 article is significant: “If gun-using criminals could be hindered from obtaining ammunition, it follows that gun violence may decline” (emphasis added). But not necessarily. And “greater efforts to prevent criminal access to ammunition may be more effective in reducing firearm injury than further limiting access to firearms” (emphasis added). But not necessarily.
Indeed, in the first two paragraphs of the article, Tita and colleagues make a couple of interesting observations that could lead to conclusions very different than the ones they draw. First, they observe that, “Gun violence has decreased over the past decade” (from the early 1990s to the early 2000s). That is, in the years following the 1986 Firearms Owners Protection Act and its partial deregulation of ammunition, gun violence went down, not up. Of course, it is possible that without the FOPA the rate of gun violence would have gone down even more, but there is other material in the paper to suggest that the availability of ammunition is not key to explaining or controlling gun violence. Tita and colleagues observe that “even within an urban center plagued by gun violence, guns are more readily available for purchase than ammunition.” The limited supply of ammunition in these urban environments does not seem to prevent gun violence, so to propose limiting the supply even more may be focusing on the wrong causal factor.
Of course, if all ammunition were completely banned and destroyed, then it would be impossible to fire a gun. But in the United States, a balance must always be struck between the desire to protect the innocent from criminal violence and the rights and freedoms of law abiding citizens. To be sure, I have sympathy for Tita and colleagues’ sense that there is a “heavy burden of gun violence” in America, and that “policymakers need to consider policy interventions that
remove easy opportunities for violent gun-using criminals to arm themselves.” Unfortunately, they do not provide any evidence that regulating ammunition in they ways suggested will prevent “violent gun-using criminals” from arming themselves. Moreover, as with all regulations there must be some consideration given to the question “at what cost?”