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Firearm Use by Offenders

Sunday, November 4, 2001 202/307-0784


Nine Percent of State Prisoners Fired Their Weapons During the Offense

WASHINGTON, D.C. - About 18 percent of state prisoners and 15 percent of federal prisoners reported in 1997 that they were armed when they committed the offense for which they were imprisoned, the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) announced today. This is an increase from the 16 percent of state inmates and 12 percent of federal inmates who reported they carried a firearm in 1991.

In the 1997 interviews an estimated 9 percent of state prisoners and 2 percent of federal prisoners reported that they fired their weapon during the commission of the crime.

The data were obtained from personal interviews with a nationally representative sample of more than 18,000 state and federal prisoners, the largest survey of prison inmates sponsored by the federal government.

Among those who carried a firearm during the offense for which they were sent to prison, about 8 percent of the state and federal prisoners carried a military-style, semiautomatic weapon. These firearms included the UZI, Tec-9, and MAC-10 handguns, the AR-15, and AK-47 rifles and the "StreetSweeper" shotguns. Possession of these models which meet certain criteria as contained in the Federal statute can be unlawful. The firearm most favored by the inmates was a handgun, which was carried by more than 80 percent of the armed inmates.

Among inmates convicted of non-violent crimes, about 8 percent of state prisoners and almost 12 percent of federal prisoners were carrying a firearm at the time of the property, drug or public order offense that resulted in their imprisonment. Of those inmates who were incarcerated for a violent crime - murder, rape, sexual attack, robbery and assault - 30 percent of state prisoners and 35 percent of federal prisoners reported they used or possessed a gun when they committed the offense.

Male offenders, younger offenders, offenders from racial and ethnic minority groups and offenders without prior convictions were the most likely to have been carrying a firearm at the time of the offense. About 15 percent of state offenders who had been on probation or parole prior to their admission to prison reported that they had been armed at the time of the offense that led to their incarceration.

Twenty-seven percent of the state prisoners who victimized a current or former spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend were armed while committing the crime, and about 8 percent used a firearm against other relatives, such as children, siblings and other family members.

About 40 percent of state inmates and 56 percent of federal inmates who carried a gun during the offense for which they were incarcerated were given sentence enhancements because of their firearm use. Those carrying firearms also received longer sentences than those without guns. Sentences for state inmates who had firearms averaged 18 years of incarceration, compared to 12 years for those without firearms.

Inmates serving time in state prisons during 1997 said they obtained their guns from the following sources in percentages:

Purchased from a retail store 8.3 percent
Purchased at a pawn shop 3.8  
Purchased at a flea market 1.0  
Purchased in a gun show 0.7  
Obtained from friends or family 39.6  
Got on the street/illegal source 39.2  

The percentage of inmates who bought their guns from a retail store fell from 21 percent in 1991, when the last such survey was conducted to 14 percent in 1997. At the same time the percentage who obtained their firearms from family or friends rose from 34 percent in 1991 to 40 percent in 1997.

The special report, "Firearm Use by Offenders" (NCJ-189369) was written by BJS statistician Caroline Wolf Harlow. After the release date it will be available at: https://bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=940

The BJS Internet site is: https://bjs.gov/

Additional criminal justice materials can be obtained from the Office of Justice Programs homepage at: https://ojp.gov

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E-mail: [email protected]
After hours contact: Stu Smith at 301/983-9354

Revised 12/6/01


Date Published: November 4, 2001