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Police in Prince George County, Maryland, examine a Colt .44 revolver recovered during an investigation. [Photo: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images]

America’s Obsession with Powerful Handguns Is Giving Criminals Deadlier Tools

Police are recovering greater numbers of high-caliber firearms from crime scenes — a trend experts say could be driving up lethality rates.

There is perhaps no place in the country where it is more difficult to legally purchase a handgun than New York City. But that doesn’t mean determined buyers must make do with whatever rusted-out plinker they can get off the street. If residents want high-quality heat without leaving town, they just have to know the right person. Someone like Natasha Harris.

Harris, who is 35, ran a gun-running ring out of a East New York, a Brooklyn neighborhood that is among the most violent in the city, and is also the epicenter of gun trafficking in the state. She was caught in 2014, after police arrested one of her couriers at a New Jersey rest stop. The courier had stashed a purple suitcase stuffed with handguns in the luggage compartment of a New York-bound bus. This September, Harris began serving a 15-year sentence at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, 50 miles north of the city.

Harris’s indictment broke down her inventory of more than five dozen handguns with unusual specificity. Most were powerful sidearms. Large caliber semiautomatic pistols of the kind favored by the police and military — including the 9mm, the .40 caliber, and the .45-caliber — predominated.

When the gun runner talked up her range of offerings, caliber was a key selling point. “You got the Glock 19 — the 9, whatever, and the .40,” Harris said of one shipment in a wiretapped phone call with an undercover officer posing as a customer. That was in addition to “the two .45s. One is a baby, one is a big boy.”

Caliber is a measurement of a bullet’s diameter, either in metric increments or fractions of an inch. A .40-caliber bullet, for example, is four tenths of an inch in diameter, nearly twice as wide as a .22. Handguns and rifles are designed to fire just one kind of round, and the caliber they hold is usually incorporated into the name.  A .22 round is what a hunter might load into a .22 rifle and use to take down a rabbit or a squirrel. A .40 round, usually loaded into a semiautomatic pistol, would blow a rabbit or squirrel to smithereens — assuming the shooter was able to hit its target. Handguns are accurate only at close range.

There are more high-caliber pistols available on the civilian market in the U.S. than ever before. In the last two decades, manufacturers have pumped out huge quantities of these guns, marketing them as weapons perfectly suited for a specific purpose: repelling human attackers. Legal buyers are scooping them up, and so are people like Harris’s customers — who, by definition, are illegal buyers.

One perhaps inevitable outcome of the flood of powerful handguns flowing into civilian hands is that they are showing up in sharply higher numbers at crime scenes, leading to rising fears that lethality rates — the percentage of people who die when they are shot — may be going up.

All bullets have the potential to kill if they hit someone in the head, puncture a vital organ, or rip open an artery. But forensic experts say larger rounds often wreak greater havoc on human bodies. “A bigger, faster bullet penetrates further and is more likely to cause a fatal wound,” says James Gannalo, a forensic firearms consultant and former New York Police Department detective.

Peter Rhee, a former military surgeon who operated on Congresswoman Gabby Giffords after she was shot in the head with a 9mm piston in 2011, puts it this way: “A .22 will kill you, but it won’t blow your head apart.” With a higher caliber handgun, he says, “you will make bigger holes.”

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Data collected by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and obtained by The Trace, shows a sharp uptick in the number of high-caliber guns recovered by police in just the last few years. From 2012 to 2015, the number of 9mm and .40-caliber weapons found by police at crime scenes and during investigations grew by 30 and 39 percent respectively. Those were greater increases than any other commonly recovered kind of guns. While .22s are still the second most frequently recovered pistol, the quantity of these guns confiscated by police stayed virtually flat.

Criminals are obtaining powerful, higher capacity weapons in greater numbers for the same reason as police and legal buyers, says David Hureau, a SUNY-Albany sociologist who studies the illegal firearms market.

“Demand is shifting because supply is shifting,” Hureau says. “Bigger, badder guns are just more available on the secondary market.”

The quintessential crime gun, from the late 1960s through the 1990s, was cheap and small. These weapons earned the epithet “Saturday Night Specials,” because of how often they were involved in late-night weekend carnage.

Some could be obtained for as little as $20. Their proliferation is widely blamed for a nationwide wave of gun crime. In 1966, the NYPD’s Chief of Detectives told the New York Times that most murders in the city were committed with knives. By 1971, guns were responsible for the majority of killings.

In the early ‘70s, Democratic senators like Birch Bayh and Ted Kennedy made banning cheap handguns the centerpiece of gun control efforts. Their bills failed. Small handguns flooded cities until the ‘90s, when the most prominent of the Saturday Night Special manufacturers — the “Ring of Fire” companies based on the outskirts of Los Angeles — were driven out of business. This happened not through legislation, but because of product liability suits filed against the gun companies stemming from the dangerously shoddy construction of their small pistols.

The guns now most likely to end up in criminal hands were originally designed for police. Austrian manufacturer Glock upended the handgun market when it introduced its 9mm handgun in the 1980s and aggressively marketed it to American law enforcement. Previously, most police service weapons were revolvers, which typically hold only six .38-caliber bullets.

A side-by-side comparison of popular calibers. (Photo: Wikicommons)

Glock’s 9mm fired a faster, more powerful round. Crucially, it also accepted magazines — a spring-operated device that feeds bullets into the chamber. Magazines often hold more rounds than a revolver and allow a gun to be quickly reloaded.

Glock also popularized the use of plastic gun components. Plastics are more economical and lighter than metal, and, in the ‘80s, had been made strong enough to withstand the forces produced by 9mm or .45-caliber rounds, even in smaller models.

“Glock was pretty brilliant in how they went about it,” says Johnny Dury, whose family has owned Dury’s Guns in San Antonio, Texas, since 1959. Roughly three decades ago, the shop  started selling Glocks to local police departments. “We switched them all to semi-autos. Game wardens, even.”

American law enforcement’s switch to lighter, more capable sidearms was just the first stage of a more profound transformation within the handgun business. “The big influx of semiautos into police forces spurred the public to start buying them,” Dury believes.

At the same time that consumers started to see these guns on more police officers’ hips, the nature of civilian gun ownership was changing. In 1981, the year Glock introduced its first pistol, 19 states had bans on the practice of carrying guns concealed in public. Today, all 50 states allow some form of concealed carry, and 32 have so-called “shall issue” standards that allow anyone who meets certain criteria to get a license to carry their weapon in public.

57227770The National Rifle Association, a vocal advocate of expanding concealed carry laws, has also lobbied to make it easier for owners to legally shoot someone if they feel threatened in their home or in public.

More Americans are adopting what sociologist Jennifer Carlson called the “citizen-protector” mindset in her 2015 book about concealed carriers: It refers to a idea that citizenship and identity reach their paramount expression in the defense of self and others. This mindset is likely also fueled by perceptions of increased risk of attack and violence, prompted by a surge in rampage shootings and terrorist attacks on American soil.

In most parts of the country, violent crime has fallen sharply from the 1990s. Yet fear of other people is now the most widely cited reason for owning a gun. For the first time, a majority Americans say they own firearms primarily to defend themselves from other people, a survey by researchers at Harvard and Northeastern universities found.

“[Gun owners] are buying handguns to protect themselves against bad guys, they store their guns ready-to-use because of bad guys, and they believe that their guns make them safer,” Deb Azrael, a researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health and one of the lead authors of the study, told The Trace in September.

Gun companies present the 9mm, .40, and .45-caliber pistols as tools for the average civilian to keep themselves safe.

Smith & Wesson, one of the largest gunmakers in the country, has had great success with its M&P (“Military & Police”) line of products since it debuted in 2005. The original, eponymous M&P product resembles the Glock: It is a semiautomatic handgun with a plastic body, designed to shoot 9mm and larger bullets.

Advertisements explicitly play up the M&P line’s popularity with law enforcement, and invite citizens to take on that same protective role. “To uphold. To Protect. To Defend.” reads one ad. Commercials for the product line intersperse shots of middle-aged men practicing their draw in their suburban garage with images of SWAT teams on raids and special forces wading through marshes.

The vogue for big, powerful semiautomatic handguns has taken over the industry. According to ATF data, American gun companies made almost 1.5 million 9mm pistols last year, a more than threefold increase from the approximately 350,000 manufactured in 1990. As a result, 9mm has become the single most prevalent caliber of new handguns.

Production of even higher caliber pistols — .40 and above — increased almost as fast, nearly tripling in volume between 1990 and 2015. Gunmakers pumped out more than 1 million of these bigger pistols in both 2013 and 2014 before cutting back last year.

High caliber pistols pack a much stronger punch than the smaller models they have eclipsed. It’s a matter of simple physics. Bullets like the 9mm have larger cartridges containing more gunpowder, which propel projectiles through space at higher velocities. The rounds are larger, so they have more mass. The combination of greater mass and velocity increases the amount of kinetic energy the bullet carries and disperses on impact.

When a round penetrates a body, the shock waves created by the kinetic energy pushes material, like tissue, far out from the path of the round, producing what’s known as a temporary cavity. That space quickly collapses around the “permanent cavity” bored by the projectile’s direct path.

Some muscle and organ tissue can bounce back readily from the shock waves created by the temporary cavity with little damage. Yet that same force can disrupt blood vessels or break bones at some distance from the projectile path, in the same way they can be disrupted by blunt trauma, medical experts say.

Higher caliber bullets also create wider permanent cavities by virtue of their wider projectile, especially if they are designed to expand on impact, as is the case with many handgun rounds. Ballistic gels tests, in which a gun is fired into a material meant to mimic the density of human tissue, clearly illustrate how a 9mm round creates much larger temporary and permanent cavities than a smaller .22.

When bullets make impact, they flatten out. Bigger bullets have a greater diameter — a .40 caliber, for example, is about a quarter of an inch wider than a .22. That small difference could determine whether someone lives or dies, says Joseph Sakran, a trauma surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Say a patient is shot with a .22-caliber bullet in the right side of the abdomen and passes near [a] big blood vessel, but doesn’t hit it. The patient is going to be fine,” Sakran explains. “If that patient gets hit in the same spot with a .40, the expansion of the round could rupture the artery,” leading to fatal blood loss, he says.

It’s not just the size of the rounds that make .40-caliber pistols deadlier than smaller models — it’s that these guns are often equipped to carry more of them. Standard magazines for 9mm, .40-, and .45-caliber pistols often hold 10 or even 20 rounds.

When semiautomatic pistols can fire more bullets — because they’re equipped with large magazines — the chances that one or more bullets find the mark go up. “What I keep explaining to people is what’s important is [the number of] rounds on target,” Rhee says.

There is some evidence to suggest that criminal shootings have become deadlier, a trend that some experts attribute to the increased caliber and magazine capacities of guns finding their way to the illicit market. A June 2016 study of 29,000 patients at the Denver Medical Center from 2000 to 2013 found that the number people admitted to the emergency room for gunshots who died from their wounds increased by six percent every two years. Deaths from other kinds of traumatic injuries, like stabbings or car accidents, remained constant during the same timeframe.

A Baltimore Sun investigation published in September found one in three shooting victims now die in the city, up from one in four a decade ago. A review of medical examiner’s records showed that the number of Baltimore residents shot multiple times had also surged during that period.

Marie Crandall, a trauma surgeon and professor at the University of Florida’s College of Medicine in Jacksonville who has also operated on gunshot victims in both Chicago and Los Angeles, has observed the same pattern in her practice. “In the last three to four years, I’ve seen an increasing number of patients shot with higher velocity bullets,” she says. “I’ve seen more people shot more than once.”

Powerful handguns enter the criminal market in a variety of ways. Some are obtained through straw purchases — bought from a dealer by someone with a clean record. Others get there through theft: An estimated 600,000 guns are stolen each year.

For a gun trafficker, perhaps the easiest path is simply to buy up a bunch of weapons in one of the many states that don’t require background checks on private or gun show sales.

Harris, the gun runner arrested in 2014, favored the last option. Several times a year, she and her cohort traveled to Florida gun shows, stocked up, and returned to New York on a discount bus.

Researchers like Hureau and Yale’s Michael Sierra-Arévalo say the illegal buyers traffickers are servicing are often moved by the same arguments that convince suburban dads: They want guns to better ensure their safety. Hureau says he believes that rationale also guides criminals to seek out higher caliber weapons.

“Most gun users on the street are fundamentally engaged in self-protection,” Hureau says. The people he interviewed in Boston’s underground gun market for his research told him that they wanted “the most powerful yet concealable gun possible.”

In October, Ted Oberg, a reporter at ABC 13 in Houston, surveyed Texas prisoners convicted of murder, asking them to reflect on how their experiences with guns had led them to jail.

One prisoner, Cedric K. Jones, had been convicted for a killing committed with a 9mm pistol. Though he had a criminal record for cocaine possession, he was able to buy the gun illegally for $250 from someone who claimed to have stolen it. “I got it to protect me and my wife,” the convict wrote. “I just feel safer when it’s around.”

Contributing reporting by Brian Freskos. Video and Graphics: Francesca Mirabile for The Trace.