Safety and Justice
Congressional Newsletter
Periodic updates to Congress on RAND's work in safety and justice

What Effect Does Notifying Recent Gun Buyers Have on Their Behavior?

man holding pistol and magazine

Can "straw purchase" transfers of guns to criminals be reduced by notifying recent gun buyers that, should their firearm be used in a crime, the gun could be traced back to them as the first legal purchaser? Would notification that they are responsible to report the theft of their gun increase the level of stolen gun reporting?

Although all gun transfers in California must be conducted at licensed dealers, evidence suggests that criminals get guns through legitimate purchases made by others that are then illegally diverted to them ("straw purchases"). The evidence also suggests that criminals often obtain guns from theft in that state, where stolen guns must be reported.

A previous RAND study that looked at two targeted areas in Los Angeles suggested that one important flow of illegal guns to criminals was legal purchasers who engaged in one or two "straw purchases" to provide guns to someone with a disqualifying criminal record. As such, the study recommended developing a mail campaign to notify new gun buyers before they had an opportunity to transfer their firearm to someone else.

A new RAND study examines the impact of such a campaign by looking at what happens to gun buyers' behavior when they receive a letter during the ten-day waiting period that reminds them of their legal obligations, that indicates that the firearm purchase has been documented, and that notes that, should it be used in a crime, the gun can and will be traced back to them as the first legal purchaser. Between May 2007 and September 2008, 2,120 guns were purchased in the same two target Los Angeles neighborhoods. Starting in August 2007, gun buyers initiating transactions on odd-numbered days received the letter described above, signed by prominent law enforcement officials, while the other buyers did not.

The study results suggest that, in some respects, legal gun purchasers do respond to market-based interventions, such as gun-law messaging. Specifically, it found that those who received the letter reported their guns stolen at more than twice the rate of those who did not receive the letter. Encouraging wider reporting of gun theft will result in a better understanding the role of theft in supplying criminals with firearms.

But more completely reporting theft and notifying recent purchasers that they would be held responsible for legal subsequent transfers did not have an impact on the short-term likelihood that police recovered these guns in crimes. Based on the available data, researchers could not determine whether all recently purchased guns that were reported stolen were actually stolen or whether some proportion were falsely reported as stolen to break the paper trail between the straw purchaser and the gun's actual criminal owner. The gun letter initiative could have some longer-term impacts because particular neighborhoods are saturated with letters, and thus casual straw purchasers might decide not to make additional purchases. Given the short-term impacts, the study's authors argue that a longer-term study of the gun letter initiative seems warranted.

READ THE JOURNAL ARTICLE ABSTRACT: Intervening in Gun Markets: An Experiment to Assess the Impact of Targeted Gun-Law Messaging
READ THE RELATED PREVIOUS REPORT: Strategies for Disrupting Illegal Firearm Markets: A Case Study of Los Angeles


RAND's Cost-of-Crime Calculator Is Making a Difference

As states and local jurisdictions struggle to make ends meet in the current economic climate, they must make tough decisions about funding public services in their communities. In such environments, policymakers need objective measures of the costs and benefits of different policies so they have a sound basis on which to allocate resources.

Police personnel spending is one clear area where this is needed, especially given congressional debates on whether to continue the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program. For policymakers to properly assess the value of police personnel relative to other crime-control options, they need to be able to conduct a reasonable cost-benefit analysis of police manpower.

Last year, under the auspices of the RAND Center on Quality Policing, RAND released a report that summarized existing high-quality academic research on the cost of crime and the effectiveness of police in preventing crime, presented the methodology underlying a cost-of-crime calculator, and provided some illustrations of its use. The cost-of-crime calculator is now posted to RAND's website, where anyone can use it.

It is currently being used by police departments across the nation. For example, in Sacramento, California, which is facing heavy budget cuts for police and fire departments, the calculator was used to conduct, as Police Chief Rick Braziel noted, "an economic impact study of the [proposed] cuts, which showed it'll negatively cost $90 million annually."

In Los Angeles, Police Chief Charlie Beck cited the RAND report and calculator as providing "an outstanding summary of leading academic research on the cost of crime and the effectiveness of police in preventing crime. It is an excellent tool for the LAPD and city officials to use in making tough decisions on investments in public safety."

The tool is also being used by police departments in Atlanta; Philadelphia; Lansing, Michigan; and Oakland, California.

READ THE OCCASIONAL PAPER: Hidden in Plain Sight: What Cost-of-Crime Research Can Tell Us About Investing in Police
USE THE CALCULATOR: Cost-of-Crime Calculator


Sacramento: Sacramento Police and Fire Face Harsh Reality of Cuts (KTXL TV)
Los Angeles: Putting More LAPD Cops on the Streets Pays Dividends, Study States (LA Weekly)
Lansing: Lawrence: Investing in Police Key (Lansing State Journal)


Jessica Saunders

Jessica Saunders

Jessica Saunders is a criminologist at the RAND Corporation. Her research interests include policing, immigration and crime, developmental criminology, evaluation research, and quantitative methods. Prior to joining RAND, Saunders was an assistant professor at Arizona State University with seven years of experience working in nonprofit applied policy research at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice Research and Evaluation Center in New York City and the American Institutes for Research in Washington, D.C. Saunders received her Ph.D. from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Her recent projects include Evaluating BJA's Open-Air Drug Market Intervention, Evaluation of Predictive Policing, Enabling the Police to Serve the Needs of 21st Century Israel, Behavioral Economics and Iraqi Violence, Psychological Well-Being Among NCIS Agents: Impact of Deployments, and Estimating the Causal Effects of Interacting with Pet Dogs and Cats.

Read more about Jessica Saunders »


Lindsey Kozberg
Vice President, Office of External Affairs

Winfield Boerckel
Director, Office of Congressional Relations

Laura Selway
Safety & Justice Legislative Analyst

RAND Office of Congressional Relations
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