Not only are guns getting bigger, they're getting into the hands of more criminals, according to a recent investigation by The Trace, with deadly effect.

While all bullets could kill if they hit vital organs, arteries, or the head, experts told The Trace that the bigger the bullet, the more likely any wound will be fatal. Bullets are measured in calibers, or the diameter of their width, in fractions of an inch or millimeter.

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In the past 20 years, higher demand from law-abiding citizens and criminals, both claiming concern about self-protection, has led gun manufacturers to make more of these deadlier guns. Legal and illegal citizen buyers alike are scooping up higher-caliber pistols like those originally designed for police from the civilian market and illegal gun runners. As a result, guns with higher caliber bullets are showing up at more crime scenes, leading experts to expect the lethality rate of gun violence to rise, too.

“Demand is shifting because supply is shifting,” SUNY-Albany sociologist David Hureau told The Trace. “Bigger, badder guns are just more available on the secondary market.”

This is a stark change from just 50 years ago, when the criminal's gun of choice–dubbed the "Saturday Night Special"–was smaller and cheaper. Since then, gun companies have marketed bigger, higher-caliber weapons like 9mm, .40, and .45 caliber pistols as adequate for keeping average citizens concerned about self-defense—"citizen protectors," as one sociologist called them—safe.

In reality, The Trace found, these guns can get into the wrong hands through the illegal gun trade, which gets its supply from straw purchases (where someone else undergoes the background check and purchases a gun, then gives it to someone else), theft, or just buying them up in states where it's legal. Then, gun runners make them available to the criminals who want them.

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The Trace found that between 2012 and 2015, there was an almost 40% increase in .40 caliber guns recovered by police at crime scenes. If loaded into a semiautomatic pistol, The Trace’s Alex Yablon reported, this caliber bullet could blow a squirrel or rabbit to pieces.

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives data analyzed by The Trace shows that in just three years, there was a sharp uptick of higher-caliber weapons recovered at crime scenes by the police.
The Trace

A study of a Denver emergency room showed that the number of people dying from gunshot wounds increased by 6% every two years. The Baltimore Sun reported that the median time before gunshot patients at Johns Hopkins were pronounced dead was six minutes. The hospital also saw an increase in gunshot victims who were dead on arrival.

President-elect Donald Trump is expected to pass pro-gun legislation that could reduce the requirements for background checks and require states to recognize concealed carry permits from other states.