Earlier versions of this article said that federal law prohibits anyone younger than 21 from buying a gun. Non-felons can buy rilfes and shotguns--but not handguns--from licensed dealers, beginning at 18. This version has been corrected.
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Guns used to kill police officers: Where they come from and how they get in the hands of criminals
To some extent, the geographic distribution of the killings tracks population size and the violent-crime rate. The two most populous states led the nation in police officer shooting deaths: California with 47 and Texas with 46. Next were Louisiana with 28 and Florida with 27, even though Florida has four times as many residents. Louisiana has the nation's highest rate of police killings per capita and the nation's highest overall rate of death by gunfire, according to a study by the Violence Policy Center, a nonprofit group that advocates gun control.
One notable exception to the population trend appears to be New York, which has the third-largest number of residents but is tied for 13th in police killings with 16. New York is known for having some of the toughest gun laws in the country.
In general, states with looser gun laws had higher rates of fatal shootings of police officers, overall handgun killings, and sales of weapons that were used in crimes in other states, according to a 2008 study underwritten by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a coalition of 300 mayors led by New York's Michael R. Bloomberg. That study looked at police shootings in the aggregate but did not trace the origin of the guns.
The 511 police officers in The Post study are among more than 95,000 Americans killed by people using firearms in the past decade.
"It is extremely easy in this country for anyone who wants to get a weapon to obtain one, particularly a handgun," said Norfolk Police Chief Bruce P. Marquis, whose department has lost five officers to guns since 2001. "There is not a lot we can do about it unless the laws are changed to restrict guns to make it harder to get them or severely punish those who knowingly obtain weapons stolen or used in other crimes."
Federal law prohibits felons, people who have been committed to an institution for mental illness, and drug users from buying a gun. States have wide latitude to set limits on how many handguns may be bought at a time and to require additional background checks, purchase permits and the reporting of lost or stolen guns.
"There's such a disparity between the gun laws in different states," said Lt. Howard Schechter, head of the forensic investigation unit for Albany, N.Y., police. "Down South, their feelings about guns and gun control are completely different. Both Carolinas, Florida, Georgia, they're generally very easy places to get guns."
The number of legally owned firearms among the guns The Post was able to track - 107 out of 341 deaths - surprised Garen Wintemute, a professor of emergency medicine and director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California at Davis.
"That's high," Wintemute said. "That's very unusual."