Skip over navigation

Journal Issue: Children, Youth, and Gun Violence Volume 12 Number 2 Summer/Fall 2002

Children, Youth, and Gun Violence: Analysis and Recommendations
Kathleen Reich Patti L. Culross Richard E. Behrman

Strategies for Addressing the Problem (4/4)

Limiting the Flow of Illegal Guns to Youth

Despite efforts by parents, community leaders, and police, many American young people can easily obtain guns for use in crimes. In 1999, approximately 9% of guns traced by ATF after being recovered by police following a crime were taken from juveniles, and an additional 34% were seized from people ages 18 to 24.45 As described in the article by Wintemute, youth can obtain guns from family or friends, from corrupt dealers or straw purchasers, through theft, or on the street from private sellers or illegal dealers. Because private sales of guns in the United States are largely unregulated, it is all too easy for guns—especially handguns—to flow illegally into the hands of young people, even though federal law prohibits most young people from owning or possessing them.10 A controversial but powerful approach to reducing youth gun crime is to tighten federal and state laws regarding gun sales so that fewer weapons are accessible to youth.

The Extent of the Problem

Numerous studies document the ease with which youth can obtain guns in the United States.23,24 In a 1998 national study of male high school sophomores and juniors, 6% of respondents had carried a handgun outside the home in the previous 12 months. Among the youth who had carried guns, 48% had been given or loaned the gun by a family member or friend. Nearly an equal percentage had obtained the gun through an illegal purchase or theft: 35% had bought the gun (of those, 53% bought from family or friends), 5% reported asking someone else to purchase the gun, and 6% had stolen or traded something for it.22

Youth can obtain guns illegally from licensed dealers or in private transactions. Although licensed firearms dealers are regulated by the federal government (and by many states) and are required to conduct criminal background checks on all purchasers, some dealers do sell illegally to youth, often by turning a blind eye to straw purchases, in which youth ask older acquaintances to buy guns for them. It appears that only a small minority of licensed gun dealers are involved in illegal activity. According to federal statistics, guns sold by 1.2% of retailers account for more than 57% of the weapons that are later traced by ATF after being recovered by law enforcement following a crime.85 Nevertheless, stricter federal and state oversight of licensed dealers might eliminate some of the more egregious offenders.

At the same time, guns sold by licensed dealers account for only about 60% of the guns sold in the United States. Guns sold by private parties, collectors, and unlicensed vendors at gun shows account for 40% of all gun sales.86 These sales are not regulated by the federal government, nor by most states.87 In an unregulated private sale, no background check takes place. Sellers are not required to keep records of their sales, and they do not even have to ask buyers for identification. Such lax requirements make it easy for youth to obtain guns.

Curbing Illegal Gun Sales to Youth

It is difficult to fully prevent unsupervised youth access to guns when guns are freely available to adults—and when nearly 200 million guns are already estimated to be in circulation in the United States.88 However, significant steps can be taken to limit young people's ability to obtain guns illegally. The article by Wintemute assesses a number of these strategies, including stricter regulation and oversight of licensed gun dealers, regulation of gun sales on the private market, and requirements that guns be registered and their owners licensed.

Closer federal and state oversight of licensed dealers, for example, could help prevent straw purchases and could catch dealers who knowingly sell in bulk to illegal gun dealers, who in turn sell guns on the street to criminals and youth. Regulating sales on the private market—requiring identification and background checks for all purchasers, mandating that sellers keep records of all transactions so that police could more easily trace guns used in crimes, or requiring that all gun sales take place through licensed dealers—also could decrease the flow of guns to young people and others who are prohibited by law from having them.89 Finally, requiring all gun owners to register their firearms and obtain licenses for their use, just as people must register their cars and be licensed to drive them, could decrease the number of guns available to youth. A gun confiscated from a young person could be traced to its registered owner, who could then face criminal penalties for transferring it illegally.

It is unlikely that any one of these proposals, or even all of them together, would stop the illegal flow of guns to youth completely. Even with stricter regulations on gun sales, illegal street markets for guns would probably continue to exist, as they do for drugs. But tighter regulations undoubtedly would make it more difficult and more expensive for young people to buy guns through these illegal channels,90 and could deter some youth from buying guns altogether.

Decreasing the availability of illegal guns to youth is an important strategy to de-escalate the violence that plagues many communities, and to reduce the fear and need for self-protection that lead many youth to acquire guns in the first place. Researcher David Kennedy, who has written extensively about youth gangs and gun violence, has observed, "Many of the kids involved in this life do not really want to live it. Less readily available weaponry would ease tensions and diminish the deadliness of incidents."91


Congress and state legislatures should institute tighter restrictions on gun sales so that fewer guns illegally end up in the hands of youth. A variety of approaches should be implemented and evaluated—in particular, closer oversight of licensed dealers, regulation of private sales, and mandated licensing of gun owners and registration of guns.