NEWS | March 10, 2020

Felons have high gun ownership rates despite prohibitions


There is a substantial population of firearm owners in California and likely across the U.S. who have retained their guns even after being involved in events that prohibited them from ownership, a UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program study has found.

The study, published today in the journal Injury Prevention, found nearly 19,000 individuals in California who continued to own nearly 50,000 firearms after being legally prohibited from doing so. Nearly half these individuals had felony convictions with a lifelong prohibition on gun ownership.

The UC Davis study is the first to quantify and describe armed and prohibited persons in California -- including demographics, firearm type and nature of the prohibitions -- and to map prohibited owners by density per square kilometer and by census tract. California is the only state that enforces existing restrictions by systematically recovering firearms among prohibited gun owners. An assessment of the effectiveness of this unique program is underway at UC Davis.

“Millions of individuals legally purchase firearms every year and prohibiting events are common,” wrote Veronica Pear, research data analyst at the VPRP and lead author of the study. “Studying the transition from legal gun owner to prohibited owner status is a particularly important moment because the risk for subsequent violence is likely to be highest immediately after an event that prohibits a gun owner from legally owning a firearm. In California, for example, 5% to 10% of gun purchasers aged 21 to 49 years with arrest histories experience felony or violence misdemeanor convictions within five years of the purchase.”

Profile of armed and prohibited gun owners

The study found 18,976 prohibited firearm owners statewide on Feb. 1, 2015, using the California Department of Justice’s Armed and Prohibited Persons System (APPS). The database cross-references firearm transfers with data on felony convictions, domestic violence retraining orders, and other events that prohibit firearm ownership such as involuntary psychiatric hospitalizations for dangerousness to self or others. Its content guides the only program in the U.S. focused on recovering firearms from prohibited persons.

The study found that the majority of prohibited firearm owners were men (92.8%). More than half (52.5%) were white, 27.5% were Hispanic and 10.8% were black. Most were between the ages of 35 and 54. 

By square kilometer, the highest densities of prohibited gun ownership were found in and around the more populated areas of the state including Los Angeles and San Francisco. In contrast, by census tract population, the highest densities of armed and prohibited people were found in Northern California.

Census tracts with the highest density of prohibited firearm owners were in the towns of Garberville and Redway in Humboldt County, which had 5.8 and 5.9 prohibited owners per 1,000 population, respectively. The town of Covelo in Mendocino County had 5.3 prohibited owners per 1,000 population.

Felonies were the most common reason for prohibiting gun ownership in the group (47.9%), followed by restraining order (16.4%), mental illness (15.7%), violent misdemeanor (14%) and condition of probation (10%). Nearly 30% were prohibited only under federal law, not California law. The mean number of prohibitions per person was 2.1 and the maximum was 85.

Unlawful retention of firearms nationwide

Given the lack of any other programs in the U.S. to recover weapons from individuals who are prohibited from owning firearms, the authors believe there are large numbers of these owners across the county, particularly in states where there are higher rates of firearm ownership and fewer barriers to purchasing a firearm.

“The high proportion of felonies among prohibited owners in California is consistent with grounds for denials nationwide, and the state’s background check denial rate of 1.1% in 2015 was very similar to the national rate of 1.4%,” Pear said. “Extrapolating these findings in California to across the U.S., 98,500 of the estimated 54.7 million firearm owners nationwide would be prohibited due to a felony conviction.”

The authors acknowledge that the true number of prohibited firearm owners nationwide cannot be determined with certainty using existing data. Many states do not keep firearm transaction records and no state other than California has made these data available to researchers. The APPS data also does not include firearm transactions prior to 1996 or firearms that were transferred illegally, a significant proportion of recovered guns.

“Illegal transfers of firearms among prohibited gun owners is common,” Pear said. “Nearly half of recovered firearms by APPS agents were not recorded in the state’s Automated Firearm System, the database that includes all legal transfers of handguns since 1996 and of shotguns and rifles since 2014.”

Prohibited firearm owners had legally purchased a total of 48,709 firearms prior to becoming prohibited from ownership. Most of the legal purchases were for handguns (92.1%). Nearly all firearm owners, regardless of prohibition status, owned at least one handgun. Prohibited owners were less likely than non-prohibited owners to own rifles and shotguns, but this may be a limitation of APPS not capturing long gun transactions until 2014. It may also be that these transactions may not have been reported by gunowners who later become prohibited from ownership compared to those who did not have a prohibiting event.

Future research by the VPRP team will assess the effectiveness of the APPS intervention in reducing violence.

Other co-authors on the paper include Christopher D. McCort, Yueju Li, Laurel Beckett, Daniel Tancredi, Philip H. Kass, Mona A. Wright, Hannah S. Laqueur, Nicole Kravitz-Wirtz and Garen J. Wintemute, all of UC Davis; David M. Studdert of Stanford Law School, Glenn L. Pierce and Anthony A. Braga of Northeastern University.

This study was funded by grant number 2014-R2-CX-0012, awarded by the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, US Department of Justice; and award number 14-6100 from the California Department of Justice.

The UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program is a multi-disciplinary program of research and policy development focused on the causes, consequences and prevention of violence. Studies assess firearm violence and the connections between violence, substance abuse and mental illness. It is home to the University of California Firearm Violence Research Center, which launched in 2017.

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