PolitiFact: Most guns in crimes obtained illegally

U.S. Rep. John Faso, R-N.Y., says he opposes some gun-control measures because they target the wrong people.

Laws that limit the rights of law-abiding gun owners don't make sense because most gun crime is committed by those who illegally possess a gun, said Faso.

The last time the government tracked this kind of data was in 2004 when the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics surveyed inmates in federal and state prisons, asking those who had a gun during their crime where they originally got it. That study was the only analysis of federal data we could find, and experts were not aware of another.

In the 13 states with the fewest restrictions on gun ownership, 40 percent of inmates illegally obtained the gun. Only about 13 percent purchased it from a store or pawn shop. In the other 37 states, including New York, 60 percent of inmates illegally procured the gun they used.

The data is hard to track because gun-ownership laws vary from state to state. New York state has universal background checks, for example. All gun sales have to go through a federally licensed dealer. A state like Mississippi, meanwhile, does not require background checks outside of gun shops. New York state also prohibits people convicted of several violent misdemeanors from buying or owning a gun. Many other states do not.

About 48 percent of state prison inmates surveyed said they got their gun from a family member, friend, gun store, pawn shop, flea market, or gun show. Forty percent of state prison inmates admitted they obtained the gun illegally on the black market, from a drug dealer, or by stealing it.

Congress since the 1990s has had an effective ban on federal taxpayer money being spent on research into gun violence as a public health issue by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But other government agencies are free to collect data on guns and gun crime.

Regional studies have found that a higher share of criminals did not legally possess a gun when they committed their crimes.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh teamed up with the Pittsburgh Police Department in 2016 to look at almost 900 firearms recovered from crime scenes in 2008. They found the criminals did not legally possess their guns in 80 percent of the cases.

A study from the University of Chicago looked at 99 inmates at the Cook County Jail in Chicago in 2015. It found only about 3 percent of inmates who used a gun bought it at a gun store. Researchers did not track the share of inmates who purchased a gun legally through other means.

As we noted in a 2015 fact check, not all guns purchased outside a gun store are illegally obtained.

There are caveats to the data, experts warned.

• Some gun crimes are never solved, so it’s impossible to know whether the gun was obtained illegally.

• The national data is more than a decade old. The prison population of 2004 may be different from today’s inmates.

• The data also varies between states. An illegal gun sale in one state may be legal in another. Someone can legally sell a gun to a friend without a background check in Mississippi, but not New York.

That means Faso’s claim may be true in some states but false in others.

Our ruling

People can differ on what constitutes a “vast majority.” What’s more, illegal gun crime is not well researched in the U.S. The latest data is more than a decade old. One analysis of the data showed Faso’s claim is not true in some states while true in others. But experts say most gun crime is likely committed by those who illegally possess guns.

His statement is accurate but needed additional information. We rate it Mostly True.

“The vast majority of crime that is gun related is committed by people who illegally are possessing that firearm.”

— Rep. John Faso, R-N.Y., on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018 in an interview on C-SPAN