WASHINGTON -- More gun-carrying criminals are turning to friends and family for their weapons rather than buying them at stores, gun shows or flea markets, the Justice Department reported Sunday.
Nearly 40 percent of state prison inmates in 1997 who used or possessed a firearm during their crime got the weapon from a friend or relative, compared with 34 percent in 1991.
Over the same period, the percentage of those inmates who bought or traded for their gun at a pawn shop, flea market, or retail outlet fell from 21 percent to 14 percent.
That shift is due in part to the passage of tougher gun control laws during the 1990s, including the 1993 Brady Bill that imposed nationwide background checks on buyers, said the report's author, Caroline Wolf Harlow.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics survey also showed the number of state prisoners who used guns to commit their crimes rose from 16 percent to 18 percent between 1991 and 1997. Federal prisoners followed the same trend, increasing their gun possession from 12 percent to 15 percent over the same period.
Researchers on both sides of the gun control issue interpreted the statistics differently.
"What this shows is that making it harder for stores to sell guns does nothing to deter criminals from getting weapons," said Jeffrey Wendell, a criminal justice professor at the University of Texas.
"They just turn to other sources. No one is walking into a store, finding they can't buy a gun and then deciding not to commit a crime."
Paul Stevens, a lawyer and professor at the University of Pennsylvania, says tougher laws are needed on all fronts.
"We need less guns in society in general," Stevens said. "The problem is that there are so many guns and they are so easy to get that it is impossible to keep the wrong people from getting a hold of them."
The data came from interviews of 18,000 prisoners.
The survey found that about 10 percent of federal and state prisoners carried a military-style, semiautomatic weapon when committing a crime. These weapons included the Uzi, Tec-9, AK-47 rifle and several varieties of shotgun.