RAND Study Finds Substantial Amounts of Ammunition Bought by Felons, Others Prohibited from Buying Bullets

For Release

October 5, 2006

Substantial amounts of bullets and shotgun shells sold in Los Angeles are purchased by felons and others who are prohibited by law from buying ammunition, according to a new RAND Corporation study that is the first to examine the amount of ammunition sold to criminals.

With support from the National Institute of Justice, researchers analyzed records detailing ammunition sales made during April and May of 2004 at 10 of the 13 retail stores in the city of Los Angeles that sell bullets and shotgun shells to the public.

A total of 2,031 people purchased 436,956 rounds of ammunition during the study period. This included 10,050 rounds of ammunition purchased by 52 people with felony convictions or other violations on their records that legally prohibit them from buying ammunition.

While federal and state laws prohibit certain people from buying ammunition, there are no mechanisms to enforce the rules. Los Angeles and a few other cities require ammunition sellers to collect information about the purchasers, but in the past those records were not routinely reviewed.

“Strategies to reduce gun violence in communities thus far have focused intensely on the guns,” said George Tita, a criminologist at the University of California, Irvine, and lead author of the study that appears in the October edition of the journal Injury Prevention. “More effective policies will need to address access to ammunition as well as access to guns.”

While the study examined only a short period of time, researchers say it provides the first reliable information about whether ammunition is routinely purchased by people who are barred from possessing ammunition.

“We found that it's not uncommon for people with criminal records simply to buy ammunition at a retail store,” said Greg Ridgeway, co-author of the study and a researcher at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. “It is particularly risky for communities to have guns and ammunition in the hands of such people.”

Past studies have shown that guns and ammunition possessed by felons and others prohibited from owning weapons are more likely to be used in violent crimes than weapons bought by people with no criminal histories.

People who buy ammunition in the city of Los Angeles must show a driver's license or other photo identification and leave a fingerprint with the seller, who maintains records about the transaction. An unsuccessful bill introduced in the California legislature in 2005 would have required ammunition dealers in California to log all ammunition sales and their purchasers in a state database.

The RAND study says if lawmakers want to prohibit the illegal sale of ammunition they could extend the instant background checks required before guns are sold to also cover the sale of ammunition.

However, unless such a step was taken at the state level, buyers could simply purchase ammunition in a nearby city to get around a local law. In addition, people prohibited from purchasing ammunition could begin buying ammunition from unregulated private sellers in the secondary firearms markets, researchers said.

However, studies conducted by other researchers in different communities with high levels of gun violence found that more careful enforcement of ammunition purchases may not necessarily lead to the creation of a black market in ammunition, according to researchers.

Another alternative is for law enforcement officials to take advantage of ammunition sales records to provide tips about felons who may illegally possess firearms, according to researchers. Ammunition logs have been used by Los Angeles area law enforcement officials to obtain search warrants that have led to the recovery of illegal firearms, according to the study.

Researchers say their study was limited by the small number of ammunition sales outlets involved and the relatively brief study period. Most of the outlets studied are located in the San Fernando Valley in the northern section of Los Angeles.

The study was so geographically limited because there are no ammunition outlets in the high-crime neighborhoods in the south part of Los Angeles. Residents of those areas are likely to buy ammunition at stores in adjacent cities that do not require ammunition sales records to be collected, according to researchers.

Records involved in the RAND study were collected from retailers by the Los Angeles Police Department and analyzed by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to see whether purchasers appeared in federal or state criminal databases.

Other authors of the study are Anthony Braga of Harvard University and Glenn L. Pierce of Northeastern University.

The study was carried out through the Safety and Justice Program within the RAND Infrastructure, Safety and Environment Division.

The mission of the RAND Infrastructure, Safety and Environment Division is to improve development, operation, use and protection of society's essential built and natural assets; and to enhance the related social assets of safety and security of individuals in transit and in their workplaces and communities. The Safety and Justice Program research addresses many aspects of public safety – including violence, policing, corrections, substance abuse and public integrity.

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