By David Blake Johnson, associate professor of Economics at University of Central Missouri, and co-author of “Gun Dealer Density and its Effect on Homicide.”
In 1995, Minneapolis enacted a moratorium preventing firearm dealers from locating within the city. This restriction resulted in gun dealers gradually disappearing from Minneapolis. One of the last firearm dealers, Koscielski’s Guns and Ammo, moved to Blaine around 2015. By the mid 2010s, firearm dealers were all but gone from Minneapolis and instead nestled in the areas around Minneapolis such as Bloomington and Plymouth.
Despite these restrictions and the gradual disappearance of firearm dealers from Minneapolis, Minneapolis still suffers a gun homicide rate greater than the surrounding areas.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average gun homicide rate in Hennepin County has been above the bordering counties each year from 1999 – 2020. The gun homicide rate in Hennepin County has been on average about 3 per 100,000, while the rate in the counties neighboring Hennepin has been about 1.3 per 100,000. These differences widen when comparing Minneapolis to the surrounding areas.
Gun rights activists will use these types of facts to demonstrate the futility of gun control by arguing that despite strict zoning restrictions, the gun homicide rate in Hennepin County remains higher than in neighboring counties. Spots to purchase new guns have disappeared from Minneapolis but the only factor that has changed is the increased travel time to drive to a licensed firearm dealer.
This pattern of firearm dealer displacement is found in a number of cities and counties, many of which face similar patterns of gun violence.
According to ATF records Chicago never had more than two gun dealers from 2003 to 2020. During these same 17 years, Chicago’s Cook County had between 37 and 67 firearm dealers. Detroit went from 23 firearm dealers in 2003 to 10 in 2021. Detroit’s Wayne County also experienced a drop in the number of dealers, but the county just north of Wayne County, Macomb County, saw an increase in the number of firearm dealers, which rose from 155 to 173.
This same pattern is observed in Philadelphia where the number of firearm dealers has remained fairly static since 2013, but the surrounding areas have seen an increase in the number of firearm dealers. Philadelphia County is an especially interesting case because of its crime gun database. Any gun recovered over the course of a criminal is put into this public database.
The City of Philadelphia’s “100 Shooting Review Committee Report” looked at the last 2000 shootings in Philadelphia (expanded from 100 shootings). The report showed that the bulk of the crime guns recovered in Philadelphia County were sold by firearm dealers located in Philadelphia County and other nearby counties. The firearm dealers who sold a disproportionate number of crime guns were not necessarily big box retailers. Rather, some of the dealers that showed up in the database were small. For example, Colosimo’s Gun Center had ties to organized crime and had been closed for over a decade. Nonetheless, this specific dealer was found to have sold a large number of crime guns in 2021.
Complicating matters further, evidence suggests gun sales have been up since about 2010.
Gun sales are up through the country but there is no direct evidence showing significant changes in the number of guns sold in Hennepin County or the counties adjacent to Hennepin. But the number of concealed carry permits has increased dramatically. In 2019, about 6,000 concealed carry permits were issued in Hennepin County. In 2021, conceal carry permits jumped to almost 17,000.
Gun sales and concealed carry permits are typically correlated, so it is probable that the rise in concealed carry permits in Hennepin County indicates an increase in gun sales.
Increased gun sales alone are not a problem. The vast majority of guns are sold to law-abiding citizens and concealed carry permit holders generally commit crimes at a rate lower than the general population. Problems start arising when these sales translate to an increase in the supply of guns on gray/black markets and increased theft opportunities; both of which are among the primary sources of guns used by criminals.
Are there specific policies that would be effective in stemming the supply of crime guns? Unfortunately, this is difficult to answer.
As a start, increased inspections of gun dealers could be done by local law enforcement or a state agency. This would fill the gap between the ATF’s goal of inspecting gun dealers once every three years and its actual inspection rate of roughly once every seven years. Inspections could be more efficient by targeting dealers linked to a disproportionate number of crime guns and/or those specializing in the sale of popular crime guns.
A second policy would be to fine gun owners whose weapons are stolen but not reported missing and then linked to crimes.
While these two policies address the supply side of the market, the demand side also cannot be ignored. Those found carrying a gun during the commission of a crime could face increased penalties as well as those who are found to be illegally carrying a weapon.
Taken in sum, city and county gun restrictions will have some impact on the local supply of guns available to criminals but gun dealer displacement will mediate these effects. The effectiveness of a local ordinance will be partly determined by the weakest restrictions in the greater area as well as the care that firearm owners in the area take when storing and transferring their weapons.
A data-based policy combating gun violence is going to require cooperation across jurisdictions. Policymakers need to crack down on both illegal possession and lax gun dealers. Local efforts may make a dent in the supply, but firearms, like any other good, will flow to areas where they are in the most demand.
The needle policymakers have to thread is limiting bad actors while also preserving constitutional rights.