Prohibited Possessors and the Law: How Inmates in Los Angeles Jails Understand Firearm and Ammunition Regulations

Prohibited Possessors and the Law: How Inmates in Los
   Angeles Jails Understand Firearm and Ammunition Regulations

   Melissa Barragan, Kelsie Y. Chesnut, Jason Gravel, Natalie A. Pifer, Keramet
   Reiter, Nicole Sherman, George Tita

   RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, Volume
   3, Number 5, October 2017, pp. 141-163 (Article)

   Published by Russell Sage Foundation

        For additional information about this article

[ Access provided at 1 Oct 2020 06:42 GMT with no institutional affiliation ]
Prohibited Possessors and the
Law: How Inmates in Los
Angeles Jails Understand
Firearm and Ammunition
Melissa Ba r r ag a n, K el sie Y. Chesn u t, Ja son Gr av el,
Nata lie A. Pifer, K er a me t R ei t er, N icole Sher m a n,
a n d George T i ta

Using data from 140 interviews with individuals detained in the Los Angeles County Jail system, this article
examines what gun offenders know about gun and ammunition regulation in California. Though most re-
spondents had a consistent, albeit general, understanding of the regulations limiting gun acquisition and
possession, analysis suggests that their understanding of ammunition restrictions was more limited. Our
sample’s awareness of firearms law is especially important to consider given that they are the very popula-
tion targeted by firearms regulations and prohibitions at the local, state, and federal level. By examining
what detained offenders know about firearms laws, we can better theorize about individual gaps in legal
knowledge and the realistic expectations for how understanding of the law can affect behavior.

Keywords: firearms policy, guns, ammunition, deterrence, legal knowledge

California and its municipalities—especially                Some research has investigated the effective-
Los Angeles (LA)—have some of the most re-                  ness of certain gun policies within the state
strictive laws in the United States regulating              (Pierce, Braga, Wintemute 2015; Wintemute
gun and ammunition sale, possession, and use.               2013; Wintemute et al. 1998), yet no study has

Melissa Barragan is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Criminology, Law, and Society at the University
of California, Irvine. Kelsie Y. Chesnut is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Criminology, Law, and So-
ciety at the University of California, Irvine. Jason Gravel is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Criminol-
ogy, Law, and Society at the University of California, Irvine. Natalie A. Pifer is assistant professor in the Depart-
ment of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Rhode Island. Keramet Reiter is assistant
professor in the Department of Criminology, Law, and Society at the University of California, Irvine. Nicole
Sherman is assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and Criminal Justice at California State
University, Chico. George Tita is professor in the Department of Criminology, Law, and Society at the Univer-
sity of California, Irvine.

© 2017 Russell Sage Foundation. Barragan, Melissa, Kelsie Y. Chesnut, Jason Gravel, Natalie A. Pifer, Keramet
Reiter, Nicole Sherman, and George Tita. 2017. “Prohibited Possessors and the Law: How Inmates in Los Ange-
les Jails Understand Firearm and Ammunition Regulations.” RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the
Social Sciences 3(5): 141–63. DOI: 10.7758/RSF.2017.3.5.07. This research was supported by an award from the
California Wellness Foundation (2013-­054) and the University of Chicago Crime Lab (FP054392). The opinions,
findings, and conclusions presented herein reflect those of the authors and not necessarily those of the founda-
tion or the lab. We would also like to thank our participants and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department,
without whom this research would not have been possible. Direct correspondence to: Melissa Barragan at, Department of Criminology, Law, and Society, 3304 Social Ecology II, Irvine, CA 92697;
Kelsie Y. Chesnut at; Jason Gravel at; Natalie Pifer at; Nicole
Sherman at; Keramet Reiter at; and George E. Tita at
142                              the underground gun m a rket

examined what California firearms users actu-         ful behavior, the risks of apprehension, and the
ally know about state or citywide gun and am-         severity of punishment (Cook 1980; Gibbs 1975;
munition laws. As has been demonstrated in            Nagin 1998; Paternoster 1987; Zimring and
other regulatory contexts, like the welfare sys-      Hawkins 1973). But in the case of ammunition
tem (see, for example, Gustafson 2011; Kidwell        regulations, assumptions may be more tenu-
and Gottlober 1999), such legal knowledge is          ous than those regarding firearm regulations.
critical to understanding the process by which        Those familiar with the Boston Gun Project
restrictive regulations might work to discourage      and the similar programs it spawned, such as
illegal behavior. Given the array and complexity      the federally funded Project Safe Neighbor-
of California’s laws governing guns and ammu-         hoods program, know the story of Freddie Car-
nition, few firearms users could be expected to       doza, a notorious career criminal and gang
have complete knowledge of such regulations.          member from Boston who was suspected of be-
However, such laws are based, at least partially,     ing the trigger man on multiple shootings
on the twofold premise that individuals are           (Ken­nedy, Braga, and Piehl 2001, 14, 37). Though
aware of the general existence of laws along          the state lacked the cooperation of witnesses
with the consequent sanctions, and that the           and victims needed to bring a case against Car-
threat of sanctions will affect an individual’s be-   doza, the police caught a break when Cardoza
havior. Indeed, basic awareness of the law is a       incriminated himself in the presence of two
fundamental principle of general deterrence           officers of the Boston Police Department. On
theory—in order for people to be discouraged          the basis of a single offense, he was ultimately
from violating laws, they need to know both           sentenced to nineteen years and seven months
that the law exists and that there is a risk of be-   in federal custody. What serious offense was it
ing sanctioned.                                       that led to Cardoza’s arrest and incarceration?
    Using data from 140 in-­depth, qualitative in-    Cardoza was casually flipping a single .45 cali-
terviews, this article takes a bottom-­up ap-         ber bullet. Given that the broad legal definition
proach to examining gun law by asking what            of firearm applies to ammunition as well as to
individuals detained on gun-­related charges in       guns, Cardoza might as well have been found
the Los Angeles County Jail system know about         in possession of a pistol. Indeed, the broad def-
the legal landscape of gun and, especially, am-       inition gave the Boston police the discretion to
munition regulation in California. Particularly,      interpret and apply the law in a way that appar-
we ask how participants understand the gun            ently surprised Cardoza.
and ammunition laws that regulate and punish             It is difficult to believe that Cardoza, or any
their behavior. Although this preliminary anal-       other prohibited possessor, would have treated
ysis cannot temporally establish legal knowl-         a pistol as cavalierly, essentially pulling it out
edge as to who would have been deterred, it           and emulating the gun slingers of the wild-­
does raise important questions about how mes-         west by spinning a firearm on his fingers while
saging of law might be improved. Specifically,        taunting the local sheriff. But if one reads the
we relate our findings to deterrence theory and       federal complaint, this is exactly what he is
discuss how the legal knowledge (or lack of it)       said to have done. As he was approached by
among gun users can inform firearm regula-            two police officers, he removed the bullet and
tions and prohibitions, especially those de-          began flipping it in the air and catching it as
signed to restrict access to ammunition, a par-       one might do with a coin. Although we do not
ticular focus of this article, and an area where      know what exactly motivated Cardoza in this
the knowledge of our interview subjects was           case, we do know that the law failed to deter
comparatively limited. Further, our findings          his illegal behavior. Because he had been able
pertaining to respondents’ legal knowledge            to successfully evade punishment for more se-
warrants future study across different catego-        rious offenses prior to this incident, we can
ries of gun and ammunition users, including           infer that the law failed because Cardoza was
both prohibited and nonprohibited users.              simply unaware of the ammunition prohibi-
    General deterrence theory assumes that in-        tion to begin with, and that by extension of this
dividuals are aware of what constitutes unlaw-        gap in knowledge, was unaware of both the risk

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p r o h i b i t e d p o s s e s s o r s a n d t h e l a w                                            14 3

of apprehension and punishment. As we dis-           were no longer required to keep data on ammu­
cuss later, this lack of knowledge should not        nition transactions, and the interstate ban was
be surprising given the incongruence between         lifted. Still, at the federal level, the age restric-
the policies and regulations in place to ensure      tion remains, and those prohibited from pos-
that firearms remain out of the hands of pro-        sessing firearms are also prohibited from pur-
hibited possessors and the efforts to monitor        chasing and possessing ammunition.
and control ammunition purchases.                        The one aspect of regulation that distin-
    In the instant study, we interviewed those       guishes firearm from ammunition transac-
most likely to have some knowledge of firearms       tions at the federal (and state) levels also helps
regulations and sanctions—individuals with           put the Freddie Cardoza case into perspective:
known firearms-­related charges—to better un-        no mechanisms are in place to ensure that pro-
derstand what they knew about the law as they        hibited possessors cannot access ammunition.
faced legal sanctioning. Our sample’s aware-         Whereas the Brady Act of 1994 required feder-
ness of firearms law is especially important to      ally licensed firearm dealers, more accurately
consider given that they are the very popula-        federal firearms licensees (FFLs), to conduct
tion targeted by many of the firearms regula-        background checks to complete the sale of a
tions and prohibitions at the local, state, and      firearm, the sale of ammunition carries no
federal level. By examining what detained of-        such requirement at the federal level. At the
fenders know about firearms laws, we can be-         time of this study, only four states had created
gin to theorize about both gaps in legal knowl-      licensing requirements for firearm purchases
edge and the realistic expectations for how          that also extended to ammunition purchases:
legal knowledge will affect behavior.                Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, and New
    The central finding discussed in this article    Jersey. New York State had also adopted an in-
is that though most respondents had a consis-        stant background check requirement for am-
tent, albeit general, understanding of the regu-     munition purchase to supplement their exist-
lations limiting gun acquisition and posses-         ing regulations, but as James Jacobs and Zoe
sion, their understanding of ammunition              Fuhr discuss in a recent analysis, implementa-
restrictions was far more limited.                   tion has been uneven and inconsistent due to
                                                     financial and technical obstacles (2016). Local
Fe d e r a l R eg u l at i o n o f F i r e a r m s   jurisdictions, including Los Angeles, have also
and Ammunition                                       adopted more restrictive policies meant to dis-
Most of the federal laws governing the sale,         suade prohibited possessors from purchasing
purchase, and possession of firearms and am-         and possessing ammunition.
munition set forth with the passage of the Gun
Control Act of 1968 treated firearms and am-         Firearm and Ammunition
munition similarly. Anyone falling into the          L aw s i n C a li f o r n i a
class of prohibited possessor was restricted         California has some of the most stringent state
from purchasing or possessing either, age re-        regulations relating to gun purchase, posses-
strictions applied equally, and interstate com-      sion, and sale. In fact, according to the Law
merce was banned for both firearm and am-            Center to Prevent Gun Violence (LCPGV), Cal-
munition sales. As with firearms sales, a license    ifornia has been consistently rated as the most
was required to manufacture, import, or dis-         restrictive state since 2010 (Law Center to Pre-
tribute ammunition. Dealers were also re-            vent Gun Violence 2013, 2015). Table 1 uses
quired to maintain basic sales information on        LCPGV data to compare select firearm regula-
ammunition transactions. However, most of            tions for the ten most restrictive states as well
these regulations, especially those governing        as for the three states bordering California.
ammunition, were repealed with the passage           When compared with other highly regulated
of the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986.        states, California’s regulatory landscape is dis-
Licenses were only required for the manufac-         tinguishable in three key ways: it is notably
ture or importation of ammunition and not            more restrictive in limiting the number of fire-
the sale of ammunition. Furthermore, dealers         arms that can be purchased and in imposing

           r sf: t he russell sage f ou n dat ion jou r na l of t he so ci a l sciences
Table 1. State Laws Regulating Transactions of Guns and Ammunitions






                                                                                                                          New York

                                                                                                  New Jersey

                                                                                                                                                                         Rhode Island

                                                                                                               Most Restrictive States                                                             Borders California

Sales or transfer    Dealer licences                                    ✔            ✔             ✔            ✔         ✔           ✔              ✔        x           ✔             ✔           x         x        x
 regulations         Records of sales                                   ✔            ✔             ✔            ✔         ✔           ✔              ✔        x           x             x           x         x        x
                     Multiple firearms per month                        ✔            x             ✔            ✔         x           x              x        x           x             x           x         x        x
                     Waiting periods                                    ✔            x             ✔            ✔         x           x              ✔        ✔           ✔             x           x         x        x

Background check     Any regulated background check                     ✔            ✔             ✔            ✔         x           x              ✔        ✔           x             x           x         ✔        ✔
 regulations on non- Specific background checks                         ✔            ✔             x            ✔         ✔           ✔              ✔        ✔           ✔             ✔           x         x        ✔
 FFL dealers         All dealers                                        ✔            ✔             x            x         ✔           x              x        x           ✔             ✔           x         x        x
                     Select firearms and gun shows                      x            x             x            ✔         x           x              x        ✔           x             x           x         x        ✔
                     Thirty-day permit to purchase                      x            x             x            x         x           ✔              ✔        x           x             x           x         x        x

Guns and             Assault weapons                                    ✔            ✔             ✔            ✔         ✔           ✔              ✔        x           x              x          x         x        x
 ammunitions         Large capacity                                     ✔            ✔             ✔            ✔         ✔           ✔              ✔        x           x              x          x         x        x
 restrictions        50 caliber rifle                                   ✔            ✔             x            ✔         x           x              x        x           x              x          x         x        x
                     License to sell ammunition                         x            ✔             ✔            ✔         ✔           ✔              x        ✔           x              x          x         x        x

Source: Authors’ tabulation based on data from Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence (2013).
p r o h i b i t e d p o s s e s s o r s a n d t h e l a w                                               145

Table 2. Gun-Related Enhancement Laws and Dispositions

Crimes                                                                             Additional Sentence

Gang crime while carrying a firearm (12021.5(a)PC)                                   1, 2, or 3 years
Gang crime while carrying a firearm and detacheable magazine                         2, 3, or 4 years
Felony while armed with firearm (12022(a)1PC)                                        1 year
Felony while armed with assault weapon,machine gun or .50 caliber rifle              3 years
Possession of narcotics with a firearm (12022(C)PC)                                  3, 4, or 5 years
Co-offender of possessor of narcotic with a firearm (12022(d)PC)                     1, 2, or 3 years
Felony while armed with firearm with metal or armor piercing ammunition              3, 4, or 10 years
Sexual offense using firearm (12022.3(a)PC)                                          3, 4, or 10 years
Sexual offense armed with firearm (12022.3(b)PC)                                     1, 2, or 5 years
Furnish a firearm to another person during commission of felony                      1, 2, or 3 years
Use of firearm during felony (12022.5(a)PC)                                          3, 4, or 10 years
Use of an assault weapon or machine gun during felony (12022.5(b)PC)                 5, 6, or 10 years
Assault with a firearm used from a vehicle (12022.5(d)PC)                            3, 4, or 10 years
Assault with an assault weapon or machine gun from vehicle (12022.5(d)               5, 6, or 10 years
Use of firearm during murder, mayhem, kidnapping, robbery, carjacking,               10 years
  assault with intent to commit a felony, assault with a firearm on a peace
  officer or firefighter, rape, sodomy, lewd act on a child, oral
  copulation,sexual penetration, assault by a prisoner, holding a hostage by
  a prisoner, and any felony punishable by death or prison for life
If firearm discharged (12022.53(C)PC)                                                20 years
If causes death or great bodily injury (12022.53(d)PC)                               25 years to life
Discharge a firearm from a vehicle causing death or great bodily harm                5, 6, or 10 years
  during felony (12022.55PC)

Source: Authors’ tabulation based on Sentence Enhancements, Cal. Penal Code § 12201-12022.95

restrictions on high-­powered rifles (earning           ing the commission of different offenses. Table
the state its “high regulation” reputation), but        2 presents specific enhancements related to
notably less so on ammunition sales than other          firearm possession and use along with the
similarly restrictive states.1 Other than these         ­potential additional sentencing dispositions
few differences, California gun laws appear to           associated with each action. These enhance-
be comparable in their restrictiveness to many           ments are designed to deter individuals (pro­
of the largest northeastern states. Note, how-           hibited or not) from using, or even carrying, a
ever, that firearm and ammunition regulations            firearm during the commission of an offense.
in the states surrounding California are some                City and county governments, like state gov-
of the least restrictive.                                ernments, have considerable leeway in regulat-
   California laws also impose sentencing en-            ing gun transactions within their jurisdictions,
hancements related to the use of firearms dur-           producing further variation within and across
1. At the time of data collection, Proposition 63—which creates a background check requirement for ammunition
purchase across the state—had not yet been passed. Since passage of this law, California has become one of
the most restrictive states on ammunition laws.

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14 6                               the underground gun m a rket

Table 3. Gun Regulations in the City of Los Angeles and Surrounding Large Cities

                                                                                        Santa Clarita
                                                                Long Beach


                                                                                                                                       El Monte


 Sales or transfers
 Permit to sell                                                  ✔                                                          ✔          ✔
 No sales of ultracompact firearms-accessories
 No “swap meet” sales or purchases of firearms
 Posession or use
 Reporting of theft or loss to police within forty-eight
 No disposing in trash or public place
 No gun parts in airports
 No false or secret compartments in vehicles
 Safe storage (locked container or trigger lock) or within
   close proximity and control of owner

 Sales or transfers
 Permit to sell
 No retail sales seven days prior and on January 1                                                                                                         ✔
  and July 4
 No sales of ammunition clips                                                                                                                              ✔
 No sales of .50 caliber ammunition
 Reporting requirements for purchase
  Date, name, address, date of birth                                                     ✔                                                                 ✔
  State ID number                                                                        ✔                                                                 ✔
  Signature                                                                              ✔                                                                 ✔
  Fingerprint                                                                                                                                              ✔
  Records maintained onsite for two years                                                ✔                                                                 ✔
  Records transferred electronically to police department
    within five days
 Possession or use
 No possession of large-capacity magazines
 No disposing in trash or public place
 Property abatement against unlawful weapons                     ✔

Source: Authors’ tabulation based on city municipal codes as of March 2016.

state lines. For instance, Los Angeles County            or elsewhere in the state.2 Table 3 presents LA
includes eighty-­eight cities, many of which             municipal code laws regarding firearms and
have their own laws regarding the sale, pur-             ammunition that go beyond state and county
chase, and possession of firearms and ammu-              regulations and also compares these laws to
nition. The City of Los Angeles (LA) imposes a           the municipal codes of several surrounding
broad range of restrictions that go beyond               large cities. This comparison highlights both
those enacted either elsewhere in the county             the restrictiveness of LA municipal codes and

2. “LA” refers to the City of Los Angeles and not other cities within Los Angeles county bounds.

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p r o h i b i t e d p o s s e s s o r s a n d t h e l a w                                          147

Figure 1. Geographical Distribution of Restrictiveness of Ammunition Sales Regulations

Source: Authors’ calculations from city municipal codes.
Notes: Not shown on the map are the cities of Lancaster and Palmdale situated northeast of Santa
Clarita. Scores reflect the number out of five categories of ammunition regulations each city has imple-
mented. The categories are: permits to sell ammunition, sale period and/or type of ammunition restric-
tions, ammunition logs, fingerprint requirement for ammunition sales, and electronic transfer of am-
munition logs to the police department.

the variability of gun restrictions at the local     beyond that of the state or federal regulations
level.                                               on ammunition. A municipality’s score was in-
   LA is especially restrictive regarding the pur-   creased by one point for each of the following
chase of ammunition. In the city, ammunition         requirements: license to sell ammunition, re-
sellers must possess a license, and purchasers       striction of sales during particular times of the
are required to provide a valid state ID and         year, ammunition sales log, fingerprints taken
leave a fingerprint impression. The seller must      at the time of purchase, and electronic transfer
also maintain a record of all transactions in-       of records to local law enforcement.
cluding the purchaser’s personal information             The unevenness of the legal landscape at
(name, date of birth, gender, address, and ID        the local level can have potentially serious im-
number) as well as the type of and quantity of       plications for the effectiveness of even the
ammunition purchased. Information on each            clearest, most restrictive, and best enforced
transaction is entered into an electronic data-      laws. For instance, restrictive regulations in
base that is transferred to the police depart-       one area can be undermined when a prohib-
ment within five days. The city also imposes         ited possessor is able to cross into a neighbor-
restrictions on the sales of certain types of am-    ing municipality with less restrictive laws in
munition and prohibits ammunition sales for          order to purchase ammunition. This assumes,
the week leading up to both the Fourth of July       of course, that those targeted by local laws are
and New Year’s Eve.                                  aware both that their status as a prohibited
   Figure 1 contextualizes these city regula-        possessor applies to ammunition purchase
tions within the context of the variety of am-       and possession and that there are local varia-
munition laws across Los Angeles County.             tions in laws regulating the purchase of am-
Each city was given a score from 0 to 5, 0 indi-     munition. However, as we discuss later, our re-
cating that the city did not have laws that went     spondents seemed to have limited knowledge

          r sf: t he russell sage f ou n dat ion jou r na l of t he so ci a l sciences
14 8                             the underground gun m a rket

of ammunition law overall, be it federal, state,      tion recorded about a participant’s current le-
or local law.                                         gal status or charge was provided voluntarily
                                                      and not corroborated with official data; we can-
Methods                                               not therefore provide a detailed analysis of
The data presented in this article were col-          how charges varied across the entire sample.
lected as part of a multicity project focused on         However, we were able to obtain self-­report
examining the contours of the illegal firearms        information on a majority of respondents’ pro-
market from the perspective of detained gun           hibited possessor status. In all, 82.86 percent
offenders. Interviews were conducted at four          (n=116) of respondents reported that they could
Los Angeles County jails between January and          not legally possess a gun because of a prior
October of 2014, including a first phase of           felony or other legal restrictions, 7.14 percent
eleven pilot interviews. Based on a sampling          (n=10) reported that they were legally able to
criteria of eighteen offenses associated with         possess a gun, and 10 percent (n=14) of respon-
firearm possession, the LA County sheriff gen-        dents provided no information or unclear in-
erated rosters of all individuals currently de-       formation relevant to their status. In compari-
tained on at least one of the qualifying charges      son, approximately 96 percent of possible
(see table A1).                                       respondents in our sampling frame were
    Rosters were generated on a biweekly basis,       charged with at least one violation related to
and potential interview participants were ran-        being a prohibited possessor. The vast majority
domly selected from these lists, provided they        of respondents, therefore, should technically
were above the age of eighteen and did not            have some baseline knowledge about being
have a mental health designation. In total, the       prohibited from both guns and ammunition
research team sampled 215 detainees and in-           given their legal status. However, the level and
terviewed 140, yielding a refusal rate of 34.9        depth of understanding of the regulations var-
percent. In terms of race/ethnicity, our sample       ies among respondents—particularly when it
was overwhelmingly male and of color. Black           comes to ammunition.
respondents were slightly overrepresented rel-           All interviews were transcribed verbatim
ative to the jail population (45 percent). Overall,   and analyzed with TAMS Analyzer Software.
however, our sample is reflective of the general      The team took a modified grounded theory ap-
LA County jail population, which is 31 percent        proach to develop analytic codes inductively
black, 49 percent Hispanic, 15 percent white,         from the data (Abbott 2004; Charmaz 2008;
and 3 percent Asian (Austin et al. 2012; for ad-      Strauss and Corbin 1990). After the initial pilot
ditional demographics, see table A2).                 phase of interviewing, members of the re-
    Interviews were conducted by a trained            search team refined and added questions to
team of five doctoral students, were audio re-        the interview instrument based on emergent
corded, and lasted between 45 and 120 min-            findings and observations from the field. After
utes. Respondents were given a $10 jail-­issued       conducting interviews, the team then broadly
vending card for their participation, regardless      coded transcripts of participants’ interviews
of whether the interview was completed. Inter-        thematically. Key areas of interest for the in-
viewers asked respondents to discuss their per-       stant analysis included respondents’ knowl-
ceptions of and experiences with: gun access          edge of gun and ammunition laws, knowledge
and illegal gun acquisition in their community;       of sanctions associated with violating gun and
community safety and gun violence; gangs; law         ammunition laws, and experiences with gun
enforcement; and gun and ammunition laws.             and ammunition laws and sanctions. Subse-
Anonymity was of paramount concern because            quent analysis focused on the specific types of
of the respondents’ legal vulnerability as an         regulations noted by respondents, the fre-
(often pretrial) incarcerated population. Re-         quency with which respondents mentioned
spondents were therefore not asked to provide         each type of regulation, and the varied types
specific details about their most recent case,        of punishments that might be imposed for vi-
nor did the LA County Sheriff’s Department            olations of regulations (for sample questions,
provide such individualized data. Any informa-        see table A3). The specificity of respondents’

          r sf: t he russell sage f ou n dat ion jou r na l of t he so ci a l sciences
p r o h i b i t e d p o s s e s s o r s a n d t h e l a w                                        149

legal knowledge varied considerably by the              Prohibition of acquisition and possession,
type of law and its related punishments.            based on an existing criminal record, was by
                                                    far the most common regulation mentioned
F i n d i n g s : Pat t e r n s o f                 and described by respondents: 80.8 percent
Leg a l K n ow le d g e                             (n=97) indicated some knowledge of this pro-
Our interviews reveal different patterns of         hibition. Their knowledge was accurate, if
knowledge within three sub-­categories of           fairly generalized. For instance, one respon-
firearm-­related laws: gun regulations, ammu-       dent said: “I know you can buy it in the shop
nition regulations, and punishments for violat-     but you’ve got to . . . have a clean record” (Re-
ing these regulations. The legal knowledge our      spondent 59). In another interview, a respon-
respondents articulated was based on both           dent explained, “I know you can’t have a re-
their lived and vicarious experience with the       cord; I know that. You’ve got to be eighteen and
law, which might have included: legal gun or        this and that. That’s all I really know” (Respon-
ammunition purchases, interactions with po-         dent 95). That respondents in jail on firearms-­
lice and the courts, prior gun-­related convic-     related charges were aware of prohibited pos-
tions, being arrested, and serving time in jail.    sessor regulations is perhaps unsurprising,
A majority of respondents had a general un-         given that prohibited possession was the regu-
derstanding of state and federal restrictions on    lation most likely associated with their arrest
gun purchase and possession. However, re-           and one that would continue to affect them
spondents’ knowledge of more local-­level reg-      postincarceration (for a list of sampled charges,
ulations and sanctions, especially local ammu-      see table A1).
nition regulations, was both more limited and           The second most common regulation men-
less consistent. Respondents also perceived         tioned was the requirement for licensure, per-
punishment for violating gun regulations—but        mit, or registration to legally possess a gun
not for violating ammunition regulations—as         (n=37, or 30.8 percent). Additionally, 17.5 per-
a relatively certain and relatively severe out-     cent (n=21) of respondents discussed parole or
come. Moreover, their knowledge of the sen-         probation status—as distinct from having a
tences likely to be imposed for violating gun       criminal record—as prohibiting legal firearm
possession and use regulations was generally        purchase or possession. Fewer than 5 percent
accurate; again, however, they knew little about    of respondents discussed either the minimum
the potential sentences likely to be imposed        age required for gun purchase, waiting periods,
for ammunition violations.                          skills tests, or other valid identification re-
                                                    quirements for legal gun purchase or posses-
General Understandings of Gun Regulations           sion in California.
Our respondents revealed a basic, but relatively        Though these findings suggest that respon-
imprecise knowledge of gun acquisition and          dents are aware of their prohibited status for
possession regulations. Of our 140 respon-          gun acquisition and possession, there was less
dents, nearly 86 percent (n=120) openly dis-        consistent reporting of other gun laws. This
cussed at least one aspect of law that regulated    abbreviated legal knowledge may imply that
gun possession and ownership. Among the re-         respondents’ knowledge of the law stops once
maining twenty respondents, the interviewer         their status as illegal possessors is made
did not raise this question during early pretests   known to them. The notion that respondents
(n=11), and the remaining nine respondents          only refer to laws on a need-­to-­know basis is
declined to discuss the subject. All the percent-   reinforced by our analysis of ammunition reg-
ages in this section therefore reflect the popu-    ulations.
lation of 120 respondents who indicated some
knowledge of gun regulations, not the total         (Non-­)Specific Knowledge of
sampled group. Among these 120 respondents,         Ammunition Regulations
we coded knowledge of twelve aspects of gun         Although the majority of respondents (69 per-
regulations (listed in table 4 in descending or-    cent) were able to discuss some aspect of the
der of their overall frequency).                    federal, state, and local laws regulating the pur-

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Table 4. Aspects of California Gun Laws Discussed by Respondents

                                                                            Frequency    Percentagea

Criminal record restricts legal gun purchase or possession                      97           80.83
License, permit, registration, or paperwork required for legal purchase         37           30.83
  or possession
Parole or probation restricts legal gun purchase or possession                  21           17.50
Specific retail stores named for available legal gun purchase                    7            5.83
Minimum age requirement for legal gun purchase                                   5            4.17
Gang member or injunction restricts legal purchase or possession                 4            3.33
Waiting period required for legal gun purchase                                   3            2.50
Skills test, classes, training required for legal gun purchase                   2            1.67
Identification required at time of gun purchase                                  2            1.67
Background check required at time of gun purchase                                1            0.83
Fingerprinting required at purchase                                              1            0.83
Legal gun purchase available ordering online                                     1            0.83

Source: Authors’ calculations.
 Respondents who discussed California gun law (n=120). Not cumulative because respondents often
cited multiple aspects of law

chase or possession of guns, they were gener-         lived within LA city limits before their incar-
ally less familiar with ammunition regulations        ceration (n= 78), and 37.9 percent (n=53) lived
(56 percent, n=79). Importantly, those who did        outside the city, so they were subject to a vari-
discuss ammunition regulations revealed               ety of possible ammunition regulations. Given
fewer and less consistently accurate details          that ammunition regulations vary across Los
about those regulations than those who dis-           Angeles County, we indicate where relevant
cussed gun regulations. There are, of course,         whether respondent knowledge of these laws
a few possible explanations for these substan-        is consistent with those corresponding to their
tive differences in knowledge.                        place of residence. In asking respondents
    First, research has described the relative        about both ammunition and gun regulations,
ease with which prohibited possessors can ac-         we sought to analyze these potential explana-
cess firearms in LA’s illicit gun market (Ches-       tions of comparative knowledge and better un-
nut et al. 2016). This might render the need to       derstand prohibited possessors’ knowledge of
access the legal ammunition market unneces-           local ammunition laws.
sary and explain respondents’ lack of familiar-           The most noticeable distinction between re-
ity with ammunition regulations. On the other         spondents’ descriptions of guns and of ammu-
hand, that there are fewer legal mechanisms           nition was relative availability and accessibil-
restricting ammunition purchase than gun              ity. Whereas respondents rarely identified
purchase might actually increase the likeli-          specific retail sources where guns could be ob-
hood that a prohibited possessor would at-            tained legally, they described ammunition as
tempt to access the legal market.                     readily obtainable from legitimate retailers.
    Second, our respondents might have only           One respondent said, for example, “You can go
known about the implications of the crimes            buy bullets from Wal-­Mart. Or what’s it called,
with which they were charged, and, as men-            Big 5, or whatever. [You can] buy bullets any-
tioned, our data does not allow us to determine       where” (Respondent 10). Table 5 lists the loca-
which of our respondents were caught and              tions respondents identified as available legal
charged with gun possession versus ammuni-            sources in order of the frequency with which
tion possession, or both. On the other hand,          the location was mentioned. Respondents
based on self-­reported areas of residence, we        most commonly reported the retailers Big 5
do know that 55.7 percent of our respondents          Sporting Goods and Wal-­Mart (though not all

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Table 5. Locations Where Ammunition Can Be Purchased

                                                 Frequency      Percentagea

Big 5 Sporting Goods                                  31           39.24
Wal-Mart (department store)                           14           17.72
Gun store (not specified)                              8           10.13
Turner’s Outdoorsman (sporting goods)                  4            5.06
Sporting goods store (not specified)                   4            5.06
Gun show                                               2            2.53
Big Lots (department store)                            1            1.27
Online                                                 1            1.27
Target (department store)                              1            1.27

Source: Authors’ calculations.
 Respondents who discussed California gun law (n=120). Not cumulative be-
cause respondents often cited multiple aspects of law.

Wal-­Mart stores in Southern California actually      that “ammo is passed out, like candy” on the
sell ammunition). Interestingly, Turners Out-         streets (Respondent 39). This finding of am-
doorsman—the only chain retailer in Los An-           munition as easy to procure is essentially the
geles County that focuses on firearm sales—           opposite from what researchers recently found
was named by a comparatively small portion            among jailed gun offenders in Chicago, where
of respondents (5 percent versus 39 percent for       bullets are apparently much more difficult to
Big 5 Sporting Goods). Respondents also re-           acquire than guns (Cook, Parker, and Pollack
ported generic sources such as gun stores,            2015).
sporting goods stores, and gun shows. How-               Among those seventy-­nine respondents who
ever, these were reported much less frequently        discussed some aspect of ammunition law,
than chain retailers.                                 only nine kinds of regulations were mentioned.
    Respondents’ characterizations of ammuni-         These are listed, in order of frequency, in table
tion as widely legally available contrasted           6. The only one mentioned with some consis-
sharply with those of guns as simply not legally      tency (n=40, 50.6 percent) is the requirement
available to them, primarily because of their         that a current form of photo identification be
known legal status as a prohibited possessor.         presented at the time of purchase. Three re-
Indeed, many respondents signaled that “It’s          spondents (3.8 percent), however, incorrectly
easier to get ammunition than it is weapons”          stated that identification was not required to
(Respondent 57), with one even stating that get-      purchase ammunition. For instance, one said
ting ammunition is the “easiest thing in the          confidently that anyone could go in and buy
world” (Respondent 104). One factor that might        ammunition because “[gun store owners] al-
have contributed to this facility of access, at       ready thinking that you got that gun, so [they]
least in the eyes of Respondent 104, was that         gonna give it to you without having to do that
he could walk into his local Wal-­Mart, show          fingerprinting, all that stuff” (Respondent 47).
his ID, and walk out with a box of bullets, no        Indeed, he went even further to say that “all
questions asked. In fact, despite understand-         you need is money.” As a resident of the City
ing that he could not legally possess a gun, this     of LA, this respondent was wrong not only
respondent stated that he only bought ammu-           about the lack of any official identification re-
nition legally, thus showing how the compara-         quirement, but also about the fingerprinting
tively lax regulations in his local area (Lan-        requirement.
caster) did not affect his willingness to illegally      Some of the respondents understated the
possess ammunition. On the other hand, for            restrictions on ammunition purchases. Others
some, going through a legitimate retailer was         overstated them. Fourteen (17.7 percent) erro-
seen as unnecessary, because of the perception        neously reported that purchasing ammunition

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Table 6. Aspects of California Ammunition Laws Discussed by Respondents

                                                             Frequency    Percentagea

Identification requirement
  ID required at time of purchase                                40           50.63
  No ID required at time of purchase                              3            3.80

Criminal record, background check requirements
 Criminal record restriction                                    14            17.72
 No background check at purchase                                 5             6.33

Age requirement
 Minimum eighteen years old                                       9           11.39
 Minimum twenty-one years old                                     2            2.53
 “Old enough” (minimum age)                                       1            1.27
 No minimum age                                                   1            1.27

License or permit requirements
 None required at purchase                                        3            3.80
 Required at purchase                                             2            2.53

Ammunition logs
 Ammunition purchase recorded                                     3            3.80
 No record of ammunition purchase or untraceable                  2            2.53

Ammunition amount restrictions
 Restriction on amount purchased at once                          2            2.53
 No restriction on amount purchased at once                       1            1.27

 Possession of ammunition not illegal or not a weapon             3            3.80
 No waiting period to purchase                                    2            2.53
 Restriction on type purchased at once                            1            1.27

Source: Authors’ calculations.
 Respondents who discussed California ammunition law (n=79). Not cumulative because re-
spondents often cited multiple aspects of law.

required a background check. Respondent 37,        lice. Only a few respondents (6.3 percent, n=5)
for example, explained that “you can’t have no     were accurate in their understanding, report-
record because they’re going to look up to see     ing that an individual with a criminal record
if you got a record. If you got any type of rob-   could technically purchase ammunition be-
bery records or shooting records they’re not       cause background checks are not required.
going to sell you nothing. They’re not going to       Several other ammunition regulations were
give you a break. They might call the police on    noted, though with much less frequency. As
you.” It could very well be that this respon-      indicated in table 6, 15.2 percent (n=12) of re-
dent’s knowledge of gun regulations led him        spondents reporting any knowledge of ammu-
to this conclusion, but he ultimately misrepre-    nition regulations indicated that there was an
sented the ammunition regulations operating        age requirement for ammunition purchases,
in his immediate community: although one           with age limits ranging from “old enough” to
must show proper identification and leave be-      eighteen to twenty-­one. Respondents also
hind a thumbprint when purchasing ammuni-          mentioned miscellaneous laws on ammuni-
tion within city boundaries, retailers do not      tion purchases, some of which were valid and
run Brady background checks or call the po-        some of which were not. For example, several

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correctly noted that retailers maintain ammu-      Table 7. Consequences Reported of Being Caught
nition purchase records and that there are re-     with a Gun by Police
strictions on the types of ammunition that one
                                                                         Frequency     Percentagea
can purchase at a store. However, some also
incorrectly believed that a permit or license      Incarceration              98           86.73
was needed for ammunition purchase, that the       Arrested or charged         6            5.31
amount of ammunition a person can buy is           Shot by police              6            5.31
limited, and that waiting periods apply.           Missing                     3            2.65
   Overall, our respondents’ understanding of
                                                   Source: Authors’ calculations.
ammunition laws varied, reflecting an inaccu-      a
                                                     Respondents who discussed consequences of be-
rate or incomplete view of the law. Whereas it
                                                   ing caught with a gun (n=113).
might not be surprising that members of a
sample consisting primarily of prohibited pos-
sessors are aware that they cannot acquire fire-   quence. Other consequences respondents cited
arms legally, it is noteworthy that these same     included being arrested or criminally charged
individuals appear to be relatively uninformed     (5.3 percent, n=6) and being “shot by the po-
about ammunition regulations. Nowhere in           lice” (5.3 percent, n=6), which Respondent 114
the United States is it legal for a prohibited     described as follows:
possessor to purchase ammunition. Therefore,
the variability in the restrictiveness of local      More than likely . . . they’re going to take you
regulations should be irrelevant because pro-        to jail. They aren’t going to let you go. They
hibited possessors should arguably be aware          are going to take you to jail because they feel
of their status restriction. However, our find-      like you are a threat, and they might shoot
ings suggest that respondents perceive gun           you, the police, depending on how they feel
and ammunition restrictions as two distinct          about it.
issues even if the law, for all intents and pur-
poses, does not treat them as such.                   Respondents who reported incarceration as
                                                   the expected consequence of police apprehen-
Understandings of the Law That Punishes            sion were also asked whether they knew any
Our respondents were able to describe in spe-      additional information, such as the specific
cific (if not always accurate) terms the punish-   charge or the amount of time they might serve.
ment they would experience if the police           Among the subgroup who both self-­reported
caught them with a gun. Their knowledge of         having criminal records and described incar-
the punishment they might encounter was, in        ceration as the consequence of police catching
fact, more detailed than that of the underlying    them with a gun (n=72), more than two-­thirds
gun (and ammunition) regulations for which         described detailed knowledge of possible crim-
they might be punished. Respondents’ descrip-      inal charges or duration of associated sen-
tions of legal consequences included knowl-        tences (69.4 percent, n=50). Respondents like
edge of the specific charges they might face,      Number 56 described the ways that being
possible sentencing enhancements, precise          caught with a gun could translate into a par-
sentence lengths, and even the percentage of       ticular punishment:
sentenced time they would likely serve.
    The majority of respondents (80.7 percent,       Possession of a firearm, a CCW [carrying a
n=113) were aware of the consequences of be-         concealed weapon] the law stipulates that if
ing caught with a gun by the police (see table       you didn’t use that gun to commit a crime,
7). Only six indicated not knowing what would        you were just in possession of it, sixteen, two,
happen. Information from twenty-­one is coded        and three. For sixteen months will add two
as “missing.” Of the 113 respondents who were        and a half or three and a half, three being the
aware of the potential consequences of being         max, sixteen being the least. So you’re look-
caught with a gun, nearly all (86.7 percent,         ing at the most eighteen months in prison or
n=98) identified incarceration as the conse-         in the county jail.

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   But, as Respondent 56 continues, final sen-         respondents’ status as a prohibited possessor).
tencing length is contingent on additional fac-        However, in both California and the City of Los
tors such as the defendant’s specific criminal         Angeles, the laws governing gun, and especially
history:                                               ammunition, purchases are far more detailed
                                                       than respondents described. Given that our re-
   Some people who get caught with a gun . . .         spondents were either awaiting sentencing or
   get probation. Some people who get caught           had recently completed the sentencing pro-
   with a gun will get like a county lick. So it       cess, it is perhaps unsurprising that they had
   varies but if you have a strike on your record      more robust knowledge of the punishments
   and you get caught with a gun that’s sixteen,       they might face, having broken the law, than
   two and three, doubles up to a thirty-­t wo and     of the laws they had broken in the first place.
   eighty-­four or eighty-­five or six with eighty-­       When it came to the punishments associ-
   five. Doubles up.                                   ated with ammunition possession, however,
                                                       respondents’ reported both a lack of knowl-
    He then continued to identify the spectrum         edge concerning ammunition law and an over-
of possible sentence enhancements that might           all astonishment at the severity of sanctions
be imposed on a person in possession of an             they experienced specific to ammunition law.
illegal gun:                                           For instance, Respondent 79 described his
                                                       shock that, after being caught with five rifle
   Then you got gun enhancements—just cer-             bullets in his pocket, he was facing prison time
   tain type of gun enhancements, like you got         for a charge of “felon in possession of ammu-
   a ten-­year gun enhancement, fifteen-­year gun      nition”:
   enhancement. Then if you use a gun for a
   crime and it’s loaded like it’s not loaded like        Not only did I get arrested, but they hit me
   a full clip like one in the brain, ready to            with a very severe sentence, and I’m now for
   squeeze that’s like ten years automatically, fif-      the first time in my life going to prison. . . .
   teen years automatically, ain’t no way around          It really shocked me, really surprised me. . . .
   it. So it all depends.                                 I got stopped by the cops. . . . It was gonna
                                                          be just a routine check. It wasn’t gonna be a
     In sum, respondents described punishment             problem, issue at all, and now it’ll be [nine-
as individualized—imposing, as Respondent                 teen months] before I’m free.
56 characterized it, “different strokes for differ-
ent folks.” Indeed, under state and federal                Even after his arrest, the scope of the con-
laws, sentences can vary according to offense          sequences for possessing ammunition as a pro-
type, offense history, and one’s assumed pro-          hibited possessor was not entirely clear to this
pensity for committing future harm, as Re-             respondent: “People kept telling me, ‘Oh, it’s
spondent 48 explained: “It would [d]epend on           not a big deal. It’s not a big deal. You didn’t
. . . how bad my record is, if they think I need       have a gun.’ Even one of the cops told me, ‘Ah,
to stay in because I’m a menace to society . . .       it’s not a big deal.’ Then it turned out to be a
if you’re fighting or stabbing people, [versus]        big deal.” Reminiscent of the Cardoza case, this
you know raping them.” Taken together, re-             respondent’s lack of knowledge of ammuni-
spondents’ knowledge of the law suggested              tion restrictions meant that he did not realize
that punishment—consisting of multiple years           he was engaging in a prohibited behavior, and
of incarceration—was relatively certain should         so was alarmed by the consequences of his ac-
they be apprehended.                                   tions. (Even his description of police officers’
     This articulation of the multiple forms that      reactions reveals the potential discretion at
their punishments might take contrasts                 play in enforcing the law, again similar to the
sharply with discussions of regulatory laws,           Cardoza case.) This respondent's surprise sug-
generally described as binary categories pivot-        gests that, had he known both that the ammu-
ing on whether the purchase of guns or am-             nition regulations existed and had conse-
munition was legal or illegal (depending on the        quences, he might have behaved differently.

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    In a similar situation, another respondent           ally possession means they found it on my
described his experience of unknowingly vio-             person. So, that’s what I’m here for. It’s just,
lating his probation or parole, due to the seizure       once again, it just all falls on the fact that I’m
of a decorative bullet during a routine home             an ex-­felon. I have a history, you know, but
search:                                                  no gun charges. (Respondent 112)

   The charge I have is a possession of ammuni-          As in the previous examples, this respon-
   tion. It was just one bullet that I had in my      dent knew the bullet was present, yet was un-
   house that when the police came to search          aware of the associated consequence. In this
   my house, they decided to charge me for it,        instance, he believed his particular history as
   because I’m not supposed to have it I guess        a nongun offender should exclude him from
   but that’s something I’ve had for like the past    any ammunition sanctioning. He also dis-
   five years, it was sitting up on my wall as dec-   agreed with the severity of the sanction he was
   oration. (Respondent 25).                          facing, given the actual ammunition offense:
                                                      “six years, eight months for a bullet.” Further,
    Although it is not clear whether this respon-     he goes on to criticize the punishment levied
dent was prohibited because of prior felony           against him by contesting the meaning of pos-
convictions or other legal restrictions (such as      session and describing the charges against him
probation, parole, or restraining order), what        as a proxy for status, not offense. Although we
is clear is that he was unaware that he could         do not know how many individuals in our sam-
not legally possess ammunition. One could ar-         ple experienced predicaments like those of the
gue that had he known, he would have gotten           previous respondents, these examples poi-
rid of the bullet, or at the very least removed       gnantly reveal how a lack of legal knowledge
it from plain view, so that it would not imme-        can undermine the effectiveness of firearms
diately implicate him during a police search.         regulations, moot the potential deterrent ef-
    Unaware of the potential serious conse-           fects of legal sanctions, and even compromise
quences of storing ammunition in his home             an individual’s perceived legitimacy of the law.
beforehand, one respondent disclosed the cir-
cumstances of his current case to us:                 Discussion
                                                      As David Kennedy puts it, “while criminal jus-
   They searched my townhouse. I have no fur-         tice agencies are very much in the business of,
   niture—nothing. For two hours. They find a         as the phrase goes, ‘sending signals,’ they in
   bullet. I have no weapons charges on my re-        practice often send those signals in obscure,
   cord. Never been to prison for a gun. Never        incoherent, ineffective, and even self-­defeating
   been, you know, nothing. I went to court. It       ways” (1996, 463). These signals come in the
   was a charge of possession of a firearm—ex-­       shape of new enforcement strategies and sen-
   felon with a firearm because since I have a        tencing policies that are often complex, in­
   bullet I must have a gun. They never found         consistently enforced, and sometimes simply
   one. . . . They want to give me six years, eight   implausible in their stated goals (such as “zero-­
   months for a bullet. . . . I’d been out five       tolerance” policies). Together, these signals
   years, and it’s like in a way I feel like well I   and policies decrease the likelihood that any
   thought I was doing right, you know? Get-          specific offender will be deterred. Theorists
   ting, you know, myself together, and every-        have had seemingly endless debates about how
   thing that I worked for in these last five years   to manipulate both the elements of deterrence
   has been taken away from me—was taken              theory—certainty, severity, and celerity—and
   away from me overnight. . . .                      the dosage of these elements in order to ensure
      So, it’s mine though. But I’m like—I’m try-     compliance with the law (Kennedy 2009). As
   ing to figure out what crime did I commit?         elusive as answers to these debates have been,
   Well, possession of ammunition. Well, I            there is one fundamental principle of deter-
   didn’t have possession. You guys found it.         rence theory that seems rather immutable, and
   You know, but anyways, because me person-          perhaps as a result is often taken for granted:

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156                                the underground gun m a rket

“That which is not known simply cannot deter”             the law predates their current incarceration or
(479).                                                    is a result of their most recent experience with
    This article examines what firearm offend-            the law. Their knowledge, then, may be signifi-
ers do and do not know, detailing how they                cantly greater than that of those who have not
understand and navigate California’s complex              been arrested, charged, and incarcerated for
layering of gun and ammunition restrictions               violations related to guns and ammunition, if
and sanctions. Specifically, we were interested           only because of the direct (as opposed to vi-
in understanding the breadth and depth of our             carious) and recent nature of their experiences
respondents’ knowledge of gun and ammuni-                 with the law. In this context, that most of our
tion law. The study’s use of detained gun of-             respondents were well aware of the gun restric-
fenders may not allow us to reach broad con-              tion associated with their status as prohibited
clusions about the potential deterrent effect             possessors is not entirely shocking.
of these laws in the general population. How-                 On the other hand, significant gaps re-
ever, we do believe that our findings have im-            mained in respondents’ knowledge of gun reg-
portant implications for firearms law by focus-           ulations in California (such as age require-
ing on the critical first stage of deterrence:            ments, licensing, and the like). Again, this may
awareness of the law. Additionally, by sampling           simply be related to the nature of our sample,
from an often underreached population ( jail              dominated by prohibited possessors. After all,
detainees), this study provides a baseline un-            all you need to know once you are prohibited
derstanding of firearm legal knowledge among              is that you are prohibited. Future studies
a group that by definition should have accu-              should therefore examine the extent to which
rate, standardized information of firearms                general gun regulations are understood among
law, given their recent apprehension and ad-              those who are not prohibited possessors, par-
judication. Yet as our findings suggest, knowl-           ticularly in a place like California, where gun
edge about gun and ammunition law is in-                  owners must navigate a complicated web of re-
complete even among a population that                     strictions.
should arguably know. This central finding                    One of the most significant gaps in our re-
should generate pause among scholars and                  spondents’ knowledge was about ammunition
policymakers because awareness of the law is              laws. Our sample, although aware that they
a key tenet of deterrence-­based policies. That           were excluded from buying or possessing guns,
is, how can we expect individuals—and pro-                knew very little about the restrictions regard-
hibited possessors in particular—to be de-                ing ammunition, in either Los Angeles County
terred from illegally possessing guns and am-             broadly, or within the high regulation jurisdic-
munition if they are not aware of the laws to             tion of the City of LA. Respondents’ lack of
begin with? Additional studies are needed to              awareness of ammunition regulations, espe-
assess whether and how specific and general               cially relative to gun regulations, can be ex-
knowledge of firearms law factors into an in-             plained in a number of ways. First, because we
dividual’s decision to illegally possess ammu-            have no way of verifying whether offenders
nition or guns, but the present analysis pro-             were charged with gun or ammunition viola-
vides an important first step by examining                tions, it could be that the unevenness in knowl-
gun and ammunition law from the perspec-                  edge is an artifact of differential ex post facto
tive of those who were not deterred.3                     experience—if you have not been caught violat-
    However, as a result of our sampling among            ing ammunition law, you may have less knowl-
jail detainees, we have no way of knowing                 edge of the regulations. Second, it could be
whether our respondents’ knowledge about                  that the high geographic variability in ammu-

3. This is especially relevant given existing research suggesting that gun violence tends to involve a relatively
small number of known offenders within any given neighborhood (Papachristos, Braga, and Hureau, 2012; Pa-
pachristos and Kirk 2015; Papachristos, Meares, and Fagan 2007; Papachristos and Wildeman 2012); in other
words, understanding those who know the law but are not deterred is important to designing (more) effective

           r sf: t he russell sage f ou n dat ion jou r na l of t he so ci a l sciences
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