Research Reports

Whose guns are stolen? Circumstances that lead to gun theft

Whose guns are stolen? Circumstances that lead to gun theft

The first reported study of victims of gun theft identifies the circumstances most likely to lead to guns being stolen from gun owners in the United States.

Findings were reported in the latest issue of Injury Epidemiology. Lead author of the study was David Hemenway, professor of health policy at the Harvard School of Public Health. The study drew from the April 2015 survey noted in the introduction, and a follow-up survey of 1,604 gun owners in November of that year.

In the study, researchers reported that 2.4 percent of gun owners surveyed said they had a personal gun stolen within the prior five years. Based on this, they estimate that 380,000 guns are stolen from U.S. owners every year, with an average of three guns taken for every two theft incidents.

Factors that were likely to lead to gun thefts include: ownership of six or more guns (4.5 percent compared to 1.7 percent); carrying guns in the previous month (5.3 percent compared to 1.7 percent); owning guns for protection (3.1 percent compared to 1.0 percent); storing guns in an unsafe manner such as unlocked and loaded (2.9 percent compared to 1.0 percent); and storing guns in cars (5.7 percent compared to 2.2 percent). The study reported that nonwhite gun owners were more likely to have guns stolen than their white counterparts (5.2 percent compared to 1.8 percent). Nonetheless, while the study reported that nonwhites were more likely to be victims of gun theft than whites, the majority of gun thefts involve white victims (60 percent), because the great majority of gun owners are white (80 percent). There were also regional differences, in the Southern U. S., where there are higher rates of gun ownership more guns are stolen.

Policy implications

Stolen guns supply the market for crime guns and are used to commit subsequent crimes. Laws that require firearm owners to report lost or stolen firearms serve several public safety functions. They help law enforcement track down missing guns and return them to lawful owners before they fall into dangerous hands. They also make gun owners more accountable for their weapons, and help protect rightful gun owners from unwarranted criminal accusations when a gun that was lost or stolen from them is later recovered at a crime scene. These laws help deter gun trafficking and discourage straw purchasing, and help law enforcement disarm individuals who become ineligible to possess firearms.

Only 11 states and the District of Columbia require firearm owners to report the loss or theft of their firearms to law enforcement. Individual actions, such as safe storage practices for gun owners and improved security measures at gun shops can also increase public safety by deterring theft.

For more coverage of this study, see:

Hemenway, D, Azrael, D, Miller, M. Whose guns are stolen? The epidemiology of gun theft victims. Inj Epidemiol. 2017 Dec;4(1):11. doi: 10.1186/s40621-017-0109-8. Epub 2017 Apr 10.

About The Joyce Foundation

Joyce is a nonpartisan, private foundation that invests in evidence-informed public policies and strategies to advance racial equity and economic mobility for the next generation in the Great Lakes region.

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