Prior misdemeanor convictions as a risk factor for later violent and firearm-related criminal activity among authorized purchasers of handguns

JAMA. 1998 Dec;280(24):2083-7. doi: 10.1001/jama.280.24.2083.


Context: Under current federal law, many persons with prior convictions for misdemeanor offenses pass criminal records background checks and legally purchase handguns.

Objective: To determine whether authorized handgun purchasers with prior misdemeanor convictions are more likely than those with no criminal history to be charged with new crimes, particularly offenses involving firearms and violence.

Design: Retrospective cohort study.

Setting and participants: A total of 5923 authorized purchasers of handguns in California in 1977 who were younger than 50 years, identified by random sample.

Main outcome measures: Incidence and relative risk (RR) of first charges for new criminal offenses after handgun purchase.

Results: Of the 5923 authorized purchasers, 3128 had at least 1 conviction for a misdemeanor offense prior to handgun purchase, and 2795 had no prior criminal history. Follow-up to the end of the 15-year observation period or to death was available for 77.8% of study subjects and for a median 8.9 years for another 9.6%. Handgun purchasers with at least 1 prior misdemeanor conviction were more than 7 times as likely as those with no prior criminal history to be charged with a new offense after handgun purchase (RR, 7.5; 95% confidence interval [CI], 6.6-8.7). Among men, those with 2 or more prior convictions for misdemeanor violence were at greatest risk for nonviolent firearm-related offenses such as weapon carrying (RR, 11.7; 95% CI, 6.8-20.0), violent offenses generally (RR, 10.4; 95% CI, 6.9-15.8), and Violent Crime Index offenses (murder or non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, or aggravated assault) (RR, 15.1; 95% CI, 9.4-24.3). However, even handgun purchasers with only 1 prior misdemeanor conviction and no convictions for offenses involving firearms or violence were nearly 5 times as likely as those with no prior criminal history to be charged with new offenses involving firearms or violence.

Conclusions: Handgun purchasers with prior misdemeanor convictions are at increased risk for future criminal activity, including violent and firearm-related crimes.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • California / epidemiology
  • Crime / statistics & numerical data*
  • Female
  • Firearms / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Homicide / statistics & numerical data
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Risk Factors
  • Violence / statistics & numerical data