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Is most gun crime committed by those who illegally possess guns?
U.S. Rep. John Faso says he opposes some gun-control measures because they target the wrong people.
Laws that limit the rights of law-abiding gun owners don’t make sense because most gun crime is committed by those who illegally possess a gun, said Faso, a Republican.
"The vast majority of crime that is gun related is committed by people who illegally are possessing that firearm," Faso said in an interview on C-SPAN.
Faso - who represents parts of the Hudson Valley and Capital Region - supports strengthening background checks for gun buyers, banning bump stocks and raising the age to purchase a firearm to 21. He does not support other measures, like a ban on assault-style firearms.
Is Faso right that the majority of gun crime is committed by those who illegally possess a gun?
The last time the government tracked this kind of data was in 2004 when the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics surveyed inmates in federal and state prisons. Part of the survey asked inmates who had a gun during their crime where they originally got it.
Dr. Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, was part of a team that used the data to estimate how many illegally possessed guns.
In the 13 states with the fewest restrictions on gun ownership, 40 percent of inmates illegally obtained the gun they used, Webster said. Only about 13 percent purchased the gun from a store or pawn shop.
In the other 37 states, including New York state, 60 percent of inmates illegally procured the gun they used, Webster said.
"If you look at the most stringent standards for legal gun ownership, it’s more like 65 percent," Webster said.
The data is hard to track because gun ownership laws vary from state to state. New York state has universal background checks, for example. All gun sales have to go through a federally licensed dealer. A state like Mississippi, meanwhile, does not require background checks outside of gun shops.
New York state also prohibits people convicted of several violent misdemeanors from buying or owning a gun. Many other states do not, Webster said.
"What people don’t really appreciate is that the standards for gun ownership are so that you can be a legal gun owner but not so much law abiding," Webster said.
About 48 percent of state prison inmates surveyed said they got the gun they used from a family member, friend, gun store, pawn shop, flea market, or gun show. Most states only require a background check if the purchase happens at a gun store, according to the Giffords Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Forty percent of state prison inmates admitted they obtained the gun illegally on the black market, from a drug dealer, or by stealing it.
Federal agencies have not released research similar to Webster’s on illegal gun crime. His study was the only analysis of federal data we could find and experts were not aware of another.
Congress since the 1990s has had an effective ban on federal taxpayer money being spent on research into gun violence as a public health issue and gun control advocacy by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But other government agencies are free to collect data on guns and gun crime.
Regional studies have found that a higher share of criminals did not legally possess a gun when they committed their crimes.
Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh teamed up with the Pittsburgh Police Department in 2016 to look at almost 900 firearms recovered from crime scenes in 2008. They found the criminals connected to these firearms did not legally possess them in 80 percent of the cases.
A study from the University of Chicago looked at 99 inmates at the Cook County Jail in Chicago in 2015. It found only about 3 percent of inmates who used a gun bought it at a gun store. Researchers did not track the share of inmates who purchased a gun legally through other means.
MSNBC Host Joe Scarborough claimed in 2015 that a very small share of crimes were committed by those who legally possess guns. PolitiFact rated that claim Half True.
For that check, we spoke with Philip Cook, a professor of economics and sociology at Duke University. He co-authored the study from the University of Chicago.
"I think it’s safe to say that a low percentage of criminal assaults and robberies are committed with guns that were acquired by legal purchase from a gun store," Cook said in 2015.
As we noted in 2015, not all guns purchased outside a gun store are illegally obtained.
We checked back with Cook for this story. He said the data on violent crimes supports Faso’s claim.
"Most people who commit assault, robbery, or murder with a gun anywhere in the U.S. are disqualified under federal law from being in possession of a gun due to age, criminal record, addiction status, immigration status or other reason," Cook said.
But there are caveats to the data, experts warned.
• Some gun crimes are never solved, so it’s impossible to know whether the gun was obtained illegally.
• The national data is more than a decade old. The prison population of 2004 may be different from today’s inmates.
• The data also varies between states. An illegal gun sale in one state may be legal in another. Someone can legally sell a gun to their friend without a background check in Mississippi, but not New York.
That means Faso’s claim may be true in some states but false in others.
Faso said "The vast majority of crime that is gun related is committed by people who illegally are possessing that firearm."
People can differ on what constitutes a "vast majority." What's more, illegal gun crime is not well researched in the U.S. The latest data is more than a decade old. One analysis of the data showed Faso’s claim is not true in some states while true in others. But experts say most gun crime is likely committed by those who illegally possess guns.
His statement is accurate but needed additional information. We rate it Mostly True.
Email conversation with Joe Gierut from Rep. Faso’s office
C-SPAN Interview with Rep. John Faso, Feb. 27, 2018
"New evidence confirms what gun rights advocates have said for a long time about crime," Washington Post, July 27, 2016
Firearm Violence, 1993 - 2011, U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics
Phone interview with Dr. Daniel Webster, professor at Johns Hopkins University
Email interview with Philip Cook, professor of economics and sociology, Duke University
Email interview with Gary Kleck, David J. Bordua Emeritus Professor of Criminology and
Criminal Justice at Florida State University
Email interview with Eugene Volokh, Gary T. Schwartz Distinguished Professor of Law at UCLA Law School
Email conversation with press office staff from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics
Email conversation with press office staff from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms
PolitiFact: MSNBC's Joe Scarborough: Tiny fraction of crimes committed with legal guns, Oct. 5, 2015
"Legal status and source of offenders' firearms in states with the least stringent criteria for gun ownership," Injury Prevention 2013, Katherine A Vittes, Jon S Vernick, Daniel W Webster
"Criminal Records of Homicide Offenders," Philip J. Cook, PhD; Jens Ludwig, PhD; Anthony A. Braga, PhD, 2005
"How to carry a gun in Mississippi: New laws explained," Clarion Ledger, Nov. 30, 2017
Universal Background Checks: Giffords Center to Prevent Gun Violence
Domestic Violence & Firearms in New York: Giffords Center to Prevent Gun Violence
"More than 80% of guns used in mass shootings obtained legally," MSNBC, Dec. 5, 2015
"Gun supporters in Congress shift stance in wake of shooting," The Daily Gazette, Feb. 28, 2018
"Faso Says He’d Back Increasing Age For Gun Purchases," NY State of Politics, Feb. 23, 2018
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