Understanding Illegal Gun Markets and Trafficking: Research in Boston

Anthony A. Braga, Harvard University

The preliminary findings from analyses of firearms trace data for Boston crime gun recoveries between 11981 and 2002 suggest that illegal gun markets are dynamic. In the response to the high-levels of fear in Boston neighborhoods during the gun violence epidemic of the late 1980s and early 1990s, demand for illegal guns among youth involved in gangs and gang violence increased dramatically. During this time period, the type of handguns recovered from youth changed from lower-powered revolvers to higher-powered semiautomatic pistols. Many of these semiautomatic pistols were new guns first purchased in Southern states like Virginia and Florida. Over the course of the 1990s, law enforcement agencies focused closely on the sources of youth guns and, through ballistics technology, the use of crime guns iun multiple violent incidents in Boston. In response to law enforcement pressure, the sources of Boston crime guns evolved over time. Since law enforcement focused on new guns first purchased at retail outlets in the South, youth crime guns are now more likely to be older firearms that were sold on the secondary market in Massachusetts. New firearms are still recovered from youthful offenders in Boston. However, the market share has decreased and a noteworthy proportion of new crime guns are now being purchased in New England states such as Maine and New Hampshire instead of Southern states. Moreover, in response to ballistics technology, criminally-active youth now have a preference for revolvers over semiautomatic pistols as revolvers do not leave tell-tale ballistics evidence at crime scenes (i.e. cartridge casings). In order for law enforcement to respond effectively, they need to better understand the workings of illegal gun markets. It is possible that the important pathways of gun trafficking for particular types of offenders at any given time may no longer be significant a year later. Law enforcement agencies need better-developed technologies to analyze complex crime problems, and a supplement to this research project will help provide a vehicle for law enforcement agencies to think strategically about a very difficult problem -- the illegal gun trade.

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Updated 05/20/2006