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Five Things to Know About Crime Guns, Gun Trafficking, and Background Checks

5.24.2021

In 2018, a Chicago police officer was shot and killed in broad daylight by a person with four felony convictions. During the investigation, authorities found that shell casings from the same gun were linked to another Chicago shooting in 2017, just two months after its last known purchase in Wisconsin. They later found the gun and multiple others recovered in Chicago linked back to one Wisconsin man who would buy guns and then privately sell them through Armslist, a major gun classifieds website. Because these transactions occurred in Wisconsin—a state that does not require background checks on all gun sales—no background checks were required on the private sales, a legal deficit that helped this gun trafficking scheme succeed and led to the murder of a police officer.1Jeremy Gorner and Annie Sweeney, “The Feds Were Watching, but Unlicensed Gun Dealer Was Still Able to Sell Glock That Killed Chicago Police Officer,” Chicago Tribune, October 11, 2018, https://bit.ly/2SOeyb9.

For decades, the US federal background check system has blocked prohibited people from buying a firearm from a licensed gun dealer. This includes, for example, people with a felony conviction or with certain domestic violence histories. Background checks are the foundation of any effective effort to keep guns from prohibited individuals, but that foundation has some dangerous cracks. While federal law requires background checks on gun sales from licensed gun dealers in the business of selling firearms, it does not require them on sales by unlicensed sellers, including by strangers who meet online or at gun shows. To address this gaping loophole, many states have enacted their own laws to require background checks on all gun sales. In states that have not addressed this gap—like Wisconsin in the above example—a private seller on the secondary market need not require a background check nor keep a record of the sale to someone who may be prohibited or who otherwise plans to use the gun in a crime or sell the gun into a criminal market. Without federal action, the current patchwork of state laws makes it easy for individuals to traffic firearms from states with weaker gun laws.

To understand the movement of guns recovered in connection with crimes—referred to as “crime guns”—Everytown analyzed gun trace data from the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) over the five-year period from 2015 to 2019.2US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, “Data & Statistics: Firearms Trace Data,” accessed April 2021, https://www.atf.gov/resource-center/data-statistics. ATF has found that, among traced crime guns, “new guns that have moved rapidly from the shelf of a [federally licensed dealer] to recovery by law enforcement in three years or less . . . may have been trafficked.”3US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, “Following the Gun: Enforcing Federal Laws against Firearms Traffickers,” 4, (June 2000, https://www.hsdl.org/?abstract&did=1622, 25; New York State Office of the Attorney General, “Target on Trafficking: New York Crime Gun Analysis,” https://targettrafficking.ag.ny.gov/#part1. This short “time-to-crime” when combined with other factors, like crossing a state border, is a strong indicator that a gun was trafficked.4US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, “Following the Gun,” 25. We overlaid crime gun trace data—including information on time-to-crime, state of origin, and state of recovery—with information on state laws requiring background checks on all handgun sales, referred to in this report as “background check laws” to gain insight into the flow of crime guns in the United States.

To read more about how we defined terms used in this report, see the methods and definitions section.

Five things you need to know

Here are five important things you should know about crime guns, gun trafficking, and background check laws:

1. Over 1.1 million crime guns were recovered by law enforcement in just five years.

Law enforcement across the United States recovered and fully traced 1,161,303 guns used in a crime over this period.5US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, “Firearms Trace Data,” 2015 to 2019. In other words, over 600 crime guns are recovered and fully traced by law enforcement every day. Gun tracing occurs when a law enforcement agency requests that ATF trace a recovered gun’s sales history during a criminal investigation.6US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, “Fact Sheet—National Tracing Center,” June 2020, https://bit.ly/2x7qKZL. It’s important to note that these numbers, though alarmingly high, are an undercount. While the ATF encourages law enforcement agencies to request a trace on every gun connected to a criminal investigation, not every recovered crime gun is submitted for a trace. Moreover, not every trace is completed successfully.7US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, “Firearms Trace Data—2019,” accessed May 12, 2021, https://www.atf.gov/resource-center/firearms-trace-data-2019. In fact, though during the time period more than 1.5 million guns were recovered by law enforcement and traced, only 1.1 million of those guns were able to be fully traced.8US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, “Firearms Trace Data—2019,” accessed May 12, 2021, https://www.atf.gov/resource-center/firearms-trace-data-2019. The analysis in this report includes only crime guns in which law enforcement requested a trace that was then completed by the ATF, referred to here as “traced guns.”

2. Nearly a third of traced guns were brought across state lines before being used in a crime. 

Twenty-eight percent of traced guns—330,350 guns over the five-year period—were recovered in a different state from where the original retail sale occurred. A small handful of US states drove this activity: Almost half of traced guns recovered in other states originated in just 10 states. The 10 states that exported the highest number of guns recovered in crimes were: Georgia, Texas, Virginia, Florida, Arizona, Indiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, respectively. Eight of these 10 states did not have background check laws during the study period. Virginia subsequently passed a law in 2020 requiring checks on all sales.9The law became effective on July 1, 2020.

3. At least 450,000 recovered guns were likely purchased with the intent to use them in a crime.

Of the more than 1 million crime guns traced over this period, more than a third—449,581—were used in a crime within just three years of their initial retail sale. This short time-to-crime is a strong indication that the guns were purchased with the intent to divert them to criminal use.10US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, “Following the Gun.” This means that a significant number of our nation’s crime guns are relatively recently purchased. Among these low time-to-crime guns, both those recovered in the same state of their original sale and those that soon crossed state lines, 73 percent were supplied by a state without background check laws. 

4. At least 84,389 crime guns were likely trafficked across state lines.

Over the five years studied, 84,389 traced crime guns were purchased with the intent to traffic them. Of course, this figure does not account for older guns—which are often trafficked alongside newer ones, so the actual number of trafficked guns is much higher.11US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, “Following the Gun,” 25.

5. Over 80 percent of likely-trafficked crime guns came from states without background check laws.

Research shows that states without background check laws are prime grounds for criminals and traffickers looking to acquire guns,12Daniel W. Webster, Jon S. Vernick, and Maria T. Bulzacchelli, “Effects of State-Level Firearm Seller Accountability Policies on Firearm Trafficking,” Journal of Urban Health 86, no. 4 (July 2009): 525–37; Daniel W. Webster, Jon S. Vernick, Emma Beth McGinty, and Ted Alcorn, “Preventing the Diversion of Guns to Criminals through Effective Firearm Sales Laws,” in Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis, ed. Daniel W. Webster and Jon S. Verick (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), 109–21. while state laws requiring background checks for all handgun sales are associated with 29 percent lower rates of gun trafficking across state lines.13Daniel W. Webster and Garen J. Wintemute, “Effects of Policies Designed to Keep Firearms from High-Risk Individuals,” Annual Review of Public Health 36, no. 1 (March 18, 2015): 21–37, https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-publhealth-031914-122516. ATF trace data during this five-year period strongly supports this research. Of the 330,350 traced guns that crossed state lines, 76 percent originated in states without background check laws. This factor is even more pronounced for likely trafficked guns: 82 percent of the 84,389 traced guns recovered across state lines within three years came from states without background check laws. Nearly half of these guns ended up in a state with a background check law. The 10 states that exported the most likely trafficked guns were: Georgia, Virginia, Arizona, Texas, Indiana, Nevada, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Alabama, respectively.

76%

76 percent of traced guns that crossed state lines came from states without background check laws.

82%

82 percent of traced guns with a short time-to-crime that crossed state lines came from states without background check laws.

Pass background checks legislation

Without federal action to strengthen background checks, our nation’s gun laws are only as strong as our weakest states’ laws.

Strengthening our nation’s background check law is a key component to reducing the prevalence of interstate gun trafficking. Congress must pass lifesaving background check legislation to help address the hundreds of thousands of crime guns that were trafficked out of states without a background check law. A federal law would curb the practice of crossing state lines to acquire firearms because prohibited purchasers would be unable to easily acquire guns on the secondary market regardless of the state, and records of gun sales by unlicensed sellers would be kept and could be used in tracing efforts when guns are recovered in crimes. Federal inaction on gun violence has led to more than 100 Americans being killed every day, and hundreds more wounded, costing US taxpayers an average of $35 million daily. The time to pass federal legislation to strengthen background checks is now.

Explore the data

Source: ATF Firearms Trace Data, 2015–2019

Methods & definitions

To understand how crime guns move and how background check laws affect their trajectory, Everytown Research analyzed gun trace data from the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) over the five-year period from 2015 to 2019, the most recent year of data currently available.14US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, “Data & Statistics: Firearms Trace Data.” We overlaid this data with information on state laws requiring background checks.

To understand the source and recovery states of traced guns, we used the ATF dataset titled “Firearm Types Recovered and Traced in the United States and Territories.” According to the ATF, traces must successfully identify a purchaser as well as the state in which the final dealer is located in order to be included in this dataset. For time-to-crime calculations, we used “Time-to-Crime – Firearms Sourced and Recovered in the United States and Territories.” Inclusion in this dataset requires an identified purchaser and purchase date. For the higher count of at least partially traced crime guns, 1.5 million, we used “Firearm Types Recovered and Traced in the United States and Territories.” This dataset includes all traced guns and produces the truest total counts of recovered guns submitted for a trace.

  • Background check laws

    This analysis defines “background check laws” as state laws requiring background checks on all handgun sales, and refers to them as “background check laws”. This original data, compiled by Everytown, considers such laws in each state for each of the years between 2015 and 2019. The analysis accounts for background check laws that were added by states during the study period and reflects whether the state had a background check law as of the end of a given year. Several states have added or repealed background check laws subsequent to the study period: 

    • A Nevada law requiring background checks on all gun sales was passed in February 2019 and took effect in January 2020. 
    • A Virginia law requiring background checks on all gun sales was passed in April 2020 and took effect in July 2020. 
    • An Iowa law repealing the state’s requirement for background checks on all handgun sales was passed in April 2021 and will take effect in July 2021.
  • Crime gun

    In this report, a “crime gun” is a gun used or suspected to have been used in a crime and recovered by law enforcement agents.

  • Gun tracing

    According to the ATF, a “gun trace” is conducted on a gun that is recovered after use in a crime when a law enforcement agency requests one within the context of a criminal investigation. While the ATF encourages law enforcement agencies to request a trace on every recovered firearm, not all firearms used in crimes and recovered by law enforcement are traced. Further, not all traces are fully completed by the ATF. Thus, federal data used in this report may underestimate the true problem. This analysis uses “fully traced” or “traced” to mean a fully completed trace by the ATF in which the purchaser and first purchase location and date were identified. Additionally, while firearms are normally traced to the first retail seller, a gun may change hands several times before being used in a crime.1US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, “Firearms Trace Data—2019,” accessed May 12, 2021, https://www.atf.gov/resource-center/firearms-trace-data-2019.

  • Time-to-crime

    A gun’s “time-to-crime” is defined by the ATF as the time elapsed from the original retail purchase date to the recovery date by law enforcement. Because time-to-crime information can be missing, totals guns recovered from time-to-crime data files may be lower than the total number of recovered guns in a state. In this analysis, the full count of total recovered guns is used except when referring to “short time-to-crime” guns or “likely trafficked” guns, which relies on the time-to-crime data for guns recovered within three years of their original purchase date.

  • Traced gun

    A crime gun becomes a “traced gun” when law enforcement officials request the ATF to trace the gun’s sale history and the ATF completes the full trace. See “Gun tracing” above.

  • Trafficked gun

    A gun is “trafficked” when it is purchased from the legal gun market and diverted to the illicit gun market. In this analysis, a “likely trafficked gun” is one that crossed state lines and was used in a crime within three years of its original retail sale. These two characteristics are documented indicators of interstate gun trafficking.2Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives, “Following the Gun”; New York State Office of the Attorney General, “Target on Trafficking.”

  • US Territories

    Guns supplied by and recovered in US territories (Puerto Rico, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, and the US Virgin Islands) were excluded from this analysis.

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