Clarification to This Article
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

In the past decade more than 95,000 Americans were killed by people using firearms. Among the victims were 511 police officers whose deaths were examined by The Washington Post in a year-long investigation.

  • More than 200 of the shooters were felons who were prohibited by federal law from possessing firearms. Many had spent time in prison for illegal handgun possession. At least 45 were on probation or parole when they killed an officer. At least four were previously convicted of murder or manslaughter, including a Texas man who had done time for two separate slayings and was on parole at the time he killed his third victim: a 40-year-old sheriff's deputy with a wife and three children.
  • Handguns were used to kill 365 officers; long guns - rifles and shotguns - were used to kill 140 officers. (Two were killed with a rifle and a handgun, and in four cases, The Post could not determine the type of weapon.) The ratio of handguns to long guns in The Post review - about 70 percent to 30 percent - is close to being the inverse of the ratio of all guns in the nation: 40 percent handguns to 60 percent long guns. But the ratio found by The Post matches that for U.S. homicides in general, experts say, reflecting the preference among criminals for handguns because they are generally cheaper and easier to conceal. The most common handgun used was the 9mm semiautomatic pistol, which was used to kill at least 85 of the police officers.
  • With a median age of 27, the shooters were generally younger than the population at large, while the officers' median age of 36 matched the country's. Forty-two of the killers were 18 or younger, including four 15-year-olds. The oldest shooter was 77. At least six of the suspects had been released early from prison sentences for previous crimes, including a man who was freed a day before gunning down an officer. Among the officers killed were a newly minted officer fresh from the police academy; a 31-year veteran two weeks from retirement; and one slain moments after having dinner with his family on Christmas Eve 2000. The youngest slain officer was 19; the oldest was 76.
  • 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."


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