One argument against gun control is:

Gun control only hurts law-abiding citizens. A person intent on doing harm will simply just acquire it illegally.

And so my question is, how good is this argument? That is to say, how easy is it to acquire guns illegally in the United States? By ease, I am thinking of several factors:

  1. Chances of getting caught?
  2. Expensiveness of the gun?
  3. The type of the gun? Can you get assault rifles?
  4. Do normal everyday people have access to the black market? Is it easy to find?
  5. Wouldn't the usual characteristics of a mass shooter (young and unlikely to be rich or particularly smart) make it harder to acquire a gun illegally?
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    Comments deleted. This comment section should be used to discuss how this question could be improved. It is not an appropriate forum to debate gun control. For more information on what comments should and should not be used for, please review the help article about the commenting privilege.
    – Philipp
    Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 15:14
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    First, you have to define what you mean by illegally. It's not (AFAIK) illegal to sell, gift, or trade guns between individuals.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 16:57
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    Is there any chance of getting a meaningful answer? This issue is so polarized nowadays that pro gun control people will just answer "no" (or "yes, but only because of lack of gun control"), anti gun control people will just answer "yes", and any votes the answers get will not reflect on how useful they are, but on how many members of those factions happen to stumble upon this question.
    – vsz
    Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 6:19
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    @jamesqf: Do you really have to define "illegally"?! That just means "in violation of the law".
    – MSalters
    Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 7:03
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    @MSalters The problem is that a gun purchase could be "illegal" for 1000 different reasons, different in every US state. This really isn't a very well-formed question, frankly I think the "correct" answer is some version of in most states it is so easy to buy a gun legally, very few people even need to resort to other means.
    – BradC
    Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 19:00

7 Answers 7


That's a somewhat specious argument, because the ability to illegally obtain weapons is made easier by lax gun laws, and the guns that make it to the illegal market, by and large, start out as firearms that are legally sourced from the manufacturer. The patchwork of gun laws means that states with the least restrictive laws for purchasing guns become the source of weapons for crimes in states with more restrictive laws. Ironically, the less rational gun rights advocates obliquely reference this in an often-heard argument that high gun crime rates in restrictive areas is proof that gun regulation simply doesn't work, as opposed to the argument that more uniform restrictions are needed. More uniform laws that set the bar at the more restrictive level are universally opposed by politically active gun advocates.

At the state level, more guns typically means more crime and more death, researchers have consistently found. So some states have enacted stricter laws to limit gun purchases and to keep firearms from falling into the wrong hands. But these efforts can be undermined by the free flow of guns across state borders, some of it legal, some of it not.

Data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms underscores this point: In 2014, ATF traced the source of over 170,000 guns used in crimes in the U.S. And well over a quarter of them -- 28 percent -- were used to commit crimes in a state other than the one they were purchased in. The map below shows which states these border-crossing crime guns came from.

Washington Post: Where guns used in crimes come from

In addition to this initially legal purchase, but then circumvention of stricter gun laws, you also have the illegal guns that are legally purchased, and then stolen from households. Laws that try to impose restrictions and enforcement on how firearms are secured in the home are also opposed.

More than half a million firearms are stolen each year in the United States and more than half of stolen firearms are handguns, many of which are subsequently sold illegally. {Philip J. Cook & James A. Leitzel, “Smart” Guns: A Technological Fix for Regulating the Secondary Market 7, Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy, Duke University, Working Paper Series SAN01-10 (July 2001)}

Giffords Law Center To Prevent Gun Violence: Statistics on Gun Trafficking & Private Sales

In addition to that, you have measures that have been passed that make it more difficult for police, the FBI and the ATF to enforce the laws that are on the books.

The ATF is not allowed to maintain a computer database of gun transactions. They are restricted from how often they can inspect any dealer, which does not allow them to focus on problem dealers, which are involved in a hugely disproportionate number of guns winding up in the wrong hands. There are also massive, intentional loopholes in existing laws like ones that allow circumvention of background checks at gun shows for private sales.

For example, under current laws the bureau is prohibited from creating a federal registry of gun transactions. So while detectives on television tap a serial number into a computer and instantly identify the buyer of a firearm, the reality could not be more different.

NY Times: Legal Curbs Said to Hamper A.T.F. in Gun Inquiries

And, finally, the argument that we should not have laws because only the law-abiding will comply with them is a patently absurd standard, since that is true for each and every law ever created, no matter how correct and effective, or how pointless and poor-thought.

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    Comments deleted. This comment section should be used to discuss how this answer could be improved. It is not an appropriate forum to debate gun control. For more information on what comments should and should not be used for, please review the help article about the commenting privilege. Also, I know that this is a very emotional topic for many of you, but that's not an excuse for personal attacks. Please remember the Stack Exchange Code of Conduct.
    – Philipp
    Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 8:09
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    Any data aggregated at the state level is guaranteed to be misleading. Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 15:54
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    I have only seen this statistic 'work' when gun ownership is compared with gun homocides, which is a bit misleading. When gun ownership is instead compared with homocides in general, there appears to be only a marginal relation between homocide rates and gun ownerships. In otherwords, the homocides still happen with or without guns, it just changes the weapon of choice.
    – lilHar
    Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 22:18
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    the ability to illegally obtain weapons is made easier by lax gun laws: Do you have evidence to cite that this is the case? None of your citations support that claim. Commented Aug 7, 2019 at 2:53
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    This doesn't answer the question that was asked. "how easy is it to acquire guns illegally in the United States?"
    – Aubreal
    Commented Aug 7, 2019 at 16:02

It is very easy to get a gun illegally.

  1. Be a non-citizen/resident, minor, felon, or have been adjudicated to be insane

  2. Go to Texas

  3. Look for "deer stick", "bangs", "outdoor toy" on craigslist.

  4. Meet the seller on a gun range with cash and test that the gun works properly

  5. Don't tell him that you are 1.

I did actually encounter someone who forgot 5) and told me was a felon while we were on the phone so perhaps it is harder than it looks.

For bonus points you can make the purchase with counterfeit money and mail the gun back to your home state.

Expense: within the normal used pawn shop range, minus sales tax

Chance of getting caught: none

Type of gun: Whatever the seller has. usually pistols, shotguns, and semiautomatic rifles. People with full automatic stuff have a special license and probably will only sell properly.

Normal people have access to this method

A responsible seller is unlikely to sell to an obvious minor.

  • Not all non-citizens are prohibited from purchasing firearms.
    – phoog
    Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 15:24
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    Getting a gun in the USA is almost as easy as getting points on politics.stackexchange.com Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 14:47
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    Is step 2 meant to be a joke? I see no reason this wouldn't work in any US state. Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 17:43
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    Not all states and municipalities allow unrecorded private sales and a posting could be a police sting. Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 17:49
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    "no reason this wouldn't work in any US state " -- In Oregon the seller would be committing a felony. Many states have universal background checks.
    – jcollum
    Commented Aug 7, 2019 at 0:08

I think you actually asked the wrong question. What you really want to know isn't how hard is it to get an illegal gun in the United States, but how hard is it to get a gun in a country with strict gun control laws.

The answer is that buying an illegal handgun in Australia can cost as much as $15,000. So while you can get them, I wouldn't worry about anyone poor enough to bother breaking into my house to have one.

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    I suspect that this frame challenge is more useful as an addendum to other answers, rather than on its own. (i.e. "This is how easy/hard it is currently in the USA, and we can extrapolate from Australia that introducing gun-laws could eventually make it this easy/hard instead") Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 11:42
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    I'm told that in the UK you can (illegally) rent a gun with ammunition. You have to leave a huge deposit on top of the rental fee which will be returned if you return the gun plus the complete ammunition. So using an illegal gun is a lot more expensive than having one.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 12:52
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    Well, getting rid of an illegal gun is much more difficult in countries with strict gun control, talking out of experience. I was stupid enough to... hypothetically... get one for "cool" when I was 15 years old (~35 years ago). Which was quite affordable and easy. Now, fast forward 5 years, and you realize that if for whatever reason it was ever found by someone, this would be some very major trouble. I ended up disassembling it, then cutting the parts to pieces small enough to be not-immediately-recognizable with power tools, and fed pieces into the trash can bit-by-bit over six months.
    – Damon
    Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 21:22
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    @emory The linked article mentions that ("There was also little known about the numbers of 3D-printed guns."). The $15k is simply a figure for "black market price of a semi-automatic gun not used in a crime". That's organised crime stuff, not a house-breaker, so Turksarama's argument doesn't really hold. Also, the article notes that this has been side-stepped by illegal guns being rented - again, easy and cheap enough for a house-breaker.
    – Luaan
    Commented Aug 7, 2019 at 9:26
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    In the UK there are a lot of offences with imitation firearms: researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/… - a convincing imitation works just as well for a holdup while being considerably easier to make.
    – pjc50
    Commented Aug 7, 2019 at 10:29

Let me describe why this question cannot be answered with U.S. data.

Chances of getting caught?

Most U.S. gun purchases can be made without notification of any authority at a gun show. Although a person banned from purchasing a weapon is not supposed to buy a gun there, there is no system in place validate who cannot own a weapon. Because of the right to remain silent, the only way you would be caught is by saying "officer, I am sorry, I know that buying this gun was illegal, but I didn't mean to do it."

Expensiveness of the gun?

Except for automatic weapons, there is no premium for illegal weapons unless one would be needed immediately. That is mostly a convenience fee in the same sense that 7-11 charges more for its products than a regular grocery store.

The type of the gun? Can you get assault rifles?

Although the new purchase of fully automatic weapons is illegal, there is no prohibition on the purchase of antique fully automatic weapons. There is a $200 tax.

Do normal everyday people have access to the black market? Is it easy to find? Wouldn't the usual characteristics of a mass shooter (young and unlikely to be rich or particularly smart) make it harder to acquire a gun illegally?

There isn't really much of a black market except for higher-end military-grade weapons.

However, U.S. data doesn't really allow for the measurement of your questions. Since the people who tend to get caught tend to be the least skilled and the most skilled won't disclose that they illegally purchased a weapon, an instrumental variable would need to be found that removes the selection bias from the estimator.

Guns are really tracked by exception. If I buy a gun from a friend, there is no database that shows I own the gun. Some older guns, such as antique weapons, have no identifying marks. If a gun I own with a serial number was stolen and I report it, then a record exists and its subsequent use can be shown to have happened via illegal acts. However, if I died and happened to own guns and someone stole them, they might only get into a database if the executor was aware the gun existed and could provide an identifying number.

There is a recordkeeping system for new weapons to the original buyer, but there does not exist a chain of title recordkeeping system. Because of this, any estimator will be a biased estimator unless another instrumental variable could be discovered that would estimate the frequency of trades. Guns are often passed down two or three generations.

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    "Most U.S. gun purchases can be made without notification of any authority at a gun show." -- What's your source of data for this? Licensed dealers are required to do background checks every time they sell a weapon. I've never had a dealer at a gun show to offer to sell me a weapon without the required check. If you're referring to non-licensed attendees, then the "gun show" adjective is unnecessary; location is irrelevant to that transaction. Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 3:50
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    Conflates assault weapon with fully automatic
    – Kyle W
    Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 16:03
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    And what exactly does "assault weapon" mean to you, @KyleW? This is a serious question. The term is used rather broadly in U.S. political discourse, but different people seem to interpret it quite differently. Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 16:21
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    @JohnBollinger Considering it's specifically a made-up, imprecise term, it doesn't mean a whole lot to me. Some people (as above) confuse it with an automatic weapon. Some people say it's a rifle with a certain "dangerous" look. The assault weapon ban defined it as a semi-automatic rifle with certain cosmetic features attached, as well as a few specific models. There really isn't a good definition to it, and that's by design by the people and politicians who use it. Same with "weapon of war." Generally, they're less powerful than other rifles that have the same capabilities but "are fine"
    – Kyle W
    Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 19:23
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    @AlexanderO'Mara Those seem to be related to actual Assault Rifles (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assault_rifle), a well-defined automatic weapon. For instance, the Uzi on a couple covers is a submachine gun. Some of the other covers mention "full-auto", and still others mention "military weaponry". These are not the same "assault weapons" as defined by politicians, and none of them would have been affected by the "assault weapon ban", being basically banned already
    – Kyle W
    Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 23:08

Since the context of the question seems to imply that the OP is not from the US, I think it contains a misunderstanding that needs to be addressed. Which is, quite simply, that as the laws are today, it's probably quite difficult AND UNNECESSARY for most people in the US to obtain a gun illegally, simply because it is much easier (in most states) to buy one legally.

So the question is really hypothetical: if US laws were changed to make it difficult or impossible to buy guns legally, would people intent on doing harm be able to obtain them illegally? The only way to partially answer such a hypothetical question is by looking at other countries with stricter gun laws, and seeing if people bent on doing harm were in fact able to obtain weapons illegally. The answer to this is certainly yes, as numerous attacks in Europe & elsewhere have demonstrated.

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    There's another important question: could you actually make gun laws that prevented the people who committed gun crime from obtaining a gun legally? The answer is the same as for your hypothetical, of course - most gun crime is with legal guns even in Europe, so "nope, doesn't really help". It may cause people to choose a different weapon (say, a knife), but that doesn't really help the victim much.
    – Luaan
    Commented Aug 7, 2019 at 9:40
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    @Luaan: And there's the elephant in the room. If it's difficult to get guns, what is to stop someone bent on mass murder from using other means? Cars & trucks, improvised explosives, airplanes... all those and more have been used. I sometime think we should be glad that the people who do these things a) generally aren't very smart, and b) have been conditioned to think of guns first by endless movies & video games. After all, how much less damage would the 9/11 jihadists have done if they'd just attacked with guns?
    – jamesqf
    Commented Aug 7, 2019 at 16:42
  • Not sure about your this answer's frame challenge; but every single European country maintains a lower firearm-related homicide death rate per 100,000 population, every year, than the U.S. Taking my own country as a random example, our rate is 30 times lower than the U.S. rate. (Of those deaths at our side, very roughly: 35% not cleared up until statistics, in 20% crime cleared up but the broad type of the firearm remains unidentified statistically, in 25% it is legally held of type not subject to owner registration, in 10% it's legally held registered, in 10% illegally held registered.) Commented Aug 7, 2019 at 16:43
  • @Jirka Hanika: I am not talking about simple homicides, most of which are personal - either you're killing someone you know (with a motive), or you kill someone in the process of some other crime, such as robbery. I'm talking about mass killings that usually have a political or religious motive.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Aug 7, 2019 at 22:30
  • @jamesqf - Here in Europe we have a wider definition of "doing harm", at least in our police statistics, then. Commented Aug 7, 2019 at 22:35

Well, drug dealers buy them. So it would seem that it is about as easy to buy an illegal firearm as an illegal drug. About twenty-five million people had used illegal drugs in the last thirty days extrapolating from one recent survey. Another survey estimates that 130,628,000 have used drugs at some point. So a sizeable minority have had contact with someone who could have sold them a gun or directed them to such a source and a significant number of people have had such contact within the last thirty days.

The greater problem with buying illegal guns in the United States is that it is difficult for a gun transaction to be illegal. It is far more likely that the person will buy the gun legally but without official sanction (since official sanction is not required).

It is worth noting that due to the way that Barack Obama changed the school to prison pipeline (alternative view), it is even more difficult to be in a situation where it is illegal to buy a gun. The recent Dayton shooter and the previous Parkland shooter both bought their guns legally despite evidence that they had considered engaging in a school shooting while in school. Because no one ever officially arrested them, there was nothing blocking them. The Parkland shooter even passed a mental health check that would have blocked him from having a gun. He was officially ruled "at low risk of harming himself or others".

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    "Another survey estimates that 130,628,000 have used drugs at some point." Which includes me, who smoked some pot 35 years ago.
    – RonJohn
    Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 13:41
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    -1. Falsely equates the ease of buying guns with buying drugs (citation needed), then somehow finds a way to blame Obama for school shootings happening now.
    – C. Helling
    Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 14:25
  • @RonJohn: Though if you happen to live in my state, or several neighboring ones, smoking pot is perfectly legal these days.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Aug 7, 2019 at 3:19
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    Crimes using illegal guns have always been a small minority of total gun crimes. Illegal guns are mostly used in organized crime, or the simple case of e.g. "bought a gun legally in one country/state, moved it illegally to another country/state". This is not limited to the US, of course. Mass shootings really seem more about media exposure - just google for "mass shootings", and almost all of the results are about US mass shootings in US media. The media response to mass shootings in e.g. Europe is almost non-existent - just "horrible tragedy by misguided/crazy people", and it stops there.
    – Luaan
    Commented Aug 7, 2019 at 9:37

Gonna try and answer your questions to the best of my knowledge.

  1. Getting caught buying a stolen gun or getting caught using? The answer depends on your what your asking and a given situation. Obtaining an illegal gun can be as easy as a person with a criminal record possessing an otherwise legitimently purchased gun (illegal possession) or stealing a legitimently obtained fire arm or purchasing from an unliscensed dealer. As getting caught using an illegal fire arm, it depends. Guns obtained legitimately are tracked in a database and the unique casing profile is cataloged. In mass shootings, it's often known within hours not just the type of gun used, but exactly which specific store it was sold through if it was legally purchased. Stolen guns buy some time as the cops will go follow the above route to the legit owner who may or may not be aware of it's theft. Unregistered guns (serial numbers filed off) usually afford the most time... once. This is because an unregisted gun will still leave a unique bullet casing that will identify it. First shot is an unknown gun to the database but the next shot will ping the profile attached to the first shot. And that said, a case against someone may be prosecuted without the murder weapon tied to the suspect.

  2. Again, this depends on how a gun was made illegal. If you use a legitiment gun illegally, this is no different in price than retail purchase. However most fire arms crimes use illegal weapons, which are way more expensive. Thieves who find legit guns will make a nice payday and can easily fence them, because that theft means the gun can't be traced to the buyer at first. Never fired unregistered guns are expensive because they can not be traced at all when fired first. On the Black Market, each illicit incident tied to a gun depreciates value by quite a lot and the original illegal owner cannot commit a crime and then sell the gun for a profit on the street.

  3. Actually, rifles (assault rifles aren't a defined thing) and other long guns are not the illegal gun of choice. Handguns are far more desired by criminals because they can be better concealed and removed from concealment. Statistically, the vast bulk of weapons used in homicides in the U.S. are hand guns and long guns are exceedingly rare (in fact, more homicides are committed by knives, blunt objects, and good ol' fashion beating a man to death before any homicide by Long gun classification shows up). If you want a really cheeky answer, because Assault Rifle is not a legal definition of a gun, they never are used illegally. 9 times out of 10, if there is a gun related crime, it's going to be a hand gun. That said, there are numbers published but they are woefully diminished.

  4. This is a hard question to answer for the United States because the ease of finding the black market depends on where you're looking. Most gun related crimes are committed in urban population centers as is most crime (to such a degree that cutting four worst cities for crime out of the U.S.' gun crime metrics drastically reduces the rate of gun crime in the United States). Someone in Wyoming is far less likely to have access to the Black Market than someone in Baltimore which has the highest Homicide Rate of any U.S. city and an even higher shooting rate (Baltimore is home to both Johns Hopkins University Hospital and University of Maryland Hospital's pioneering Shock Trauma unit, which are some of the best hospitals in the world drastically reduces the number of shooting victims who become homicide victims. The shooting rate is so high, the U.S. military will send their doctors to Baltimore hospitals because its closer to battlefield conditions than anyone really wants to admit). That's to say nothing about just watzing up to a dealer and buying illicit fire arms. There's a level of trust that requires doing that because they don't want undercover cops buying from them.

  5. First, there are no usually characteristics of mass shooters. Despite the frequent amounts in the United States, they're still very uncommon even in the United States. Statistically speaking, the per capita chance of dying in a mass shooting incident is measured by a per capita size of one million where as most criminal statistics are measured in per capita size of one hundred thousand. Even then, statistically you're more likely to die in a mass shooting in Switzerland and Norway than in the United States (1.7 and 3.5 per million respectively to 1.5 per million in the United States... keep in mind, there's more people in the United States than either of those countries, by a factor of forty times as much.). Profiles of potential shooters are highly discouraged because the incidents are of this subset of murder are still way too small (the numbers from Norway and Switzerland are from one incident in the same comperable time frame to the U.S. and that's not even considering that the higher number of incidents in the United States also frequently see reduced deaths because potential victims are more likely to take steps that are proven to help with survival.). And while the common profile is a young white male, I can name incidnts where the shooter did not meet these descriptions (The Vegas Shooter was not young, the Washington Naval Yard Shooter was not White Or Young, and the Youtube Shooter was not white or male, though she's a very rare exception at that). It's also noted that in the United States, crime is disproportionately committed by males and the nation is 65% ethnically white. Given the low incident rate, using biographic factors is still premature. Some common factors that are emerging are that more likely than not, the suspect purchased the fire arm legally and had no prior criminal record which means the purchase was allowed despite a background check, though some should not have been allowed to do so (but the information wasn't made available to the FBI, who runs the checks, or wasn't properly filed by them). Additionally, it has been noticed that while, age and race are a common factor, and sex is not statistically out of line with any other violent crime, a very disturbing number were raised by single mothers (the common citation is that of the last 26 mass shootings, 25 were committed by a person who did not have a father figure in their lives, though this is a couple months out of date from when I heard it. Personally I'd err on the side of caution for even that, but if I had to bet on the background of a mass shooter, I'd lay money on that first).

We also don't have a favored weapon of choice for these incidents as examining a decades worth of data still shows that these incidents have only a slight use towards semi-automatic rifles, but hand guns, shot guns, and mixed fire arms (using two of any of the other categories) show up frequently enough to not be discounted.

  • It seems like you have some good info here, but I think it needs sources. Do you have sources for each of your points?
    – Cullub
    Commented Aug 7, 2019 at 16:03

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