PITTSBURGH (UPI) — The majority of people using guns in crimes are not the weapons’ legal owners, a University of Pittsburgh study reveals.

An analysis of 762 crimes conducted by the college’s Graduate School of Public Health shows that in nearly 80 percent of the crimes in which a gun was recovered by the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police Firearm Tracking Unit in 2008, the perpetrator was not the lawful owner of the gun.

The study shows that in 44.3 percent of cases in which the suspect was not the owner of the gun, police were unable to locate the gun’s owner to learn how they lost possession of it. In cases in which police could find the weapon’s legal owner, more than 30 percent of the owners said the gun was stolen, and 57.9 percent of them reported it missing or stolen.

The research was led by Anthony Fabio, assistant epidemiology professor at the University of Pittsburgh and was published in the current issue of the journal Social Medicine.

“Owners who have illegally transferred their firearm, perhaps as a straw purchase where they buy the gun for someone who otherwise would not be able to legally obtain one, may be more likely to resist attempts by police to contact them or claim the firearm was stolen after police contact them …The overriding issue here is that these numbers are just estimates. Even police departments do not have the resources to accurately and consistently track firearms used in illegal activities,” Fabio concluded.

He recommended additional efforts to educate the public about safe gun storage, and more collaboration between public health and law enforcement experts to reduce violent crime and improve access to data about firearms.

“Immediate improvement in firearm surveillance is needed to save lives. It is estimated that there are more than 300 million guns in the U.S. And we know that firearm production is increasing. In 2013, nearly 11 million firearms were manufactured in the U.S., more than double the number produced in 2008,” he said.

Fabio’s co-authors on the study include Jessica Duell, Kathleen Creppage and Ron Laporte of the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health; and Kerry O’Donnell, of the now-closed Falk Foundation, the study’s funder.

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