This study analyzed publicly available national data on gun theft, together with a unique data set for Chicago, in order to determine whether an effective program to reduce gun theft would reduce gun violence.
Some law enforcement officials and other observers have asserted that theft is the primary source of guns used in crime. In fact, the role of theft in supplying the guns used in robbery, assault, and murder is unknown, and current evidence provides little guidance about whether an effective program to reduce gun theft would reduce gun violence. The results tend to support a conclusion that stolen guns play only a minor role in crime. First, publicly available data are used to determine that thefts are only about 1 percent of all gun transactions nationwide. Second, an analysis of original data from Chicago demonstrates that less than 3 percent of crime guns recovered by the police have been reported stolen to the Chicago Police Department (CPD). If a gun is reported stolen, there is a 20 percent chance that it will be recovered, usually in conjunction with an arrest for illegal carrying. Less than half of those picked up with a stolen gun have a criminal record that includes violent offenses. Third, results from surveys of convicted criminals, both nationally and in Chicago, suggest that it is rare for respondents to have stolen the gun used in their most recent crime. The data on which these results are based have various shortcomings. A research agenda is proposed that would provide more certainty about the role of gun theft in gun-related crimes. (publisher abstract modified)