Ongoing Small Firearms Research

Understanding the ways illegal small firearms and ammunition are produced, diverted from legal stocks, trafficked, sold, and used is a necessary first step in reducing the deadly toll of gun violence. Nowhere is this point made clearer than here in the Americas: Latin America is home to just 8% of the world’s population, but hosts 33% of global homicides. One of the reasons is the availability of guns: around 40% of global homicides are committed by firearm, but 75% in Latin America are. And the predominant reason for firearms availability in the Americas is the proximity of the United States, the world’s largest producer of, and free market for, firearms.

But there’s a major catch to trying to understand these dynamics better: illicit gun traders have every reason to operate in the shadows, so data is scarce. Kroc School Professor Topher McDougal’s ongoing research portfolio on small arms markets, both in the United States and around the world, has focused on finding clever strategies to tease out clues to the functioning of these markets. He calls it “forensic economics.” This approach led to his co-founding in 2014 of the Small Arms Data Observatory (SADO).

Here is a brief timeline of small arms-related research findings to come out of Professor McDougal’s research:

Revolver statue
  • The Way of the Gun is published in the high-ranking journal Economic Geography, using geospatial statistics to detect and estimate the large number of firearms legally sold in the United States being trafficked across the southern border into Mexico.
  • 2014

  • 2015
  • The cash stock in the San Diego region is modeled using proxies for illicit industries, generating estimations of the respective sizes of the small arms, sex, and drugs markets At $920 million annually, the market for illegal weapons is roughly equivalent to that of the sex industry, and much smaller than the drugs and licit cash economies
  • Graph depiction of the USD monetary market value relative to time (from the year 2000 until 2013) for Sex, Drugs, Guns and other markets.

  • Large map showing various data points and location, relative to McDougal's research. The data points are contextualized by type of SALW and it's relative price since 2010
  • Two new global datasets on illicit small arms prices are released: one detailing individual transactions, one on country-level price approximations. Professor McDougal argues these and similar price datasets are much more useful for understanding global arms trafficking than problematic proxies like reported arms seizure numbers.
  • 2017

  • 2019
  • Illicit ammunition price data is collected in Haiti and used to show that shipments to the UN Mission and Haitian National Police are being diverted onto the black market. Professor McDougal makes the case for the United Nations to collect small arms price data as a tool for estimating global trafficking patterns at an expert meeting in Lima, Peru.

  • Professor McDougal and co-authors estimate the first national-level model of firearms supply and demand in the United States, demonstrating among other things that, like in narcotics markets, the supply of firearms increases demand for them. The final version is still in process!
  • 2020

  • and beyond...
  • Ongoing projects are seeking to understand how outbreaks of armed conflict influence firearms markets (and vice versa). Planned projects propose investigating links between small arms markets and poaching patterns in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as how better datasets can be gathered using machine learning and web-scraping technologies.