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

5.24.2021

Last Updated: 10.10.2022

collage representing a car driving across state lines, overlayed with text about crime guns from the report

Introduction

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 2017 to 2021.1US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, “Data & Statistics: Firearms Trace Data,” accessed October 2022, 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.”2US 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/#pa. This short “time-to-crime” when combined with other factors, like crossing a state border, is a strong indicator that a gun was trafficked.3US 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 1.4 million crime guns were recovered by law enforcement in just five years.

Law enforcement across the United States recovered and fully traced 1,422,032 guns used in a crime over this period.4US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, “Firearms Trace Data,” 2017 to 2021. In other words, nearly 780 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.5US 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.6US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, “Firearms Trace Data—2021,” accessed October, 2022, https://www.atf.gov/resource-center/firearms-trace-data-2021. In fact, though during the time period more than 1.8 million guns were recovered by law enforcement and traced, only 1.4 million of those guns were able to be fully traced.7US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, “Firearms Trace Data—2021,” accessed October, 2022, https://www.atf.gov/resource-center/firearms-trace-data-2021. There are many reasons why a trace might be unsuccessful, including poor record keeping by gun dealers and recovering ghost guns that cannot be traced because they lack serial numbers. 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.  Over a quarter of traced guns were brought across state lines before being used in a crime. 

Twenty-seven percent of traced guns—390,154 guns over the five-year period—were recovered in a different state from where the original retail sale occurred, a 21 percent increase over the 2016–2020 total.8From 2016–2020, 357,360 guns were recovered in a different state from where the original retail sale occurred. US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, “Firearms Trace Data—2021,” accessed October, 2022, https://www.atf.gov/resource-center/firearms-trace-data-2021. 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, Arizona, Florida, Virginia, Indiana, South Carolina, North Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi, 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.

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

21 states have adopted this policy

AL AK AZ AR CA CO CT DE FL GA HI ID IL IN IA KS KY LA ME MD MA MI MN MS MO MT NE NV NH NJ NM NY NC ND OH OK OR PA RI SC SD TN TX UT VT VA WA WV WI WY

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

Alabama has not adopted this policy

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

Alaska has not adopted this policy

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

Arizona has not adopted this policy

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

Arkansas has not adopted this policy

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

California has adopted this policy

Does the law cover only handgun purchases, or also rifle and shotgun purchases?
All firearms (handguns, rifles, and shotguns)
When is the background check performed?
Point-of-sale

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

Colorado has adopted this policy

Does the law cover only handgun purchases, or also rifle and shotgun purchases?
All firearms (handguns, rifles, and shotguns)
When is the background check performed?
Point-of-sale

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

Connecticut has adopted this policy

Does the law cover only handgun purchases, or also rifle and shotgun purchases?
All firearms (handguns, rifles, and shotguns)
When is the background check performed?
Permit to purchase and point-of-sale

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

Delaware has adopted this policy

Does the law cover only handgun purchases, or also rifle and shotgun purchases?
All firearms (handguns, rifles, and shotguns)
When is the background check performed?
Point-of-sale

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

Florida has not adopted this policy

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

Georgia has not adopted this policy

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

Hawaii has adopted this policy

Does the law cover only handgun purchases, or also rifle and shotgun purchases?
All firearms (handguns, rifles, and shotguns)
When is the background check performed?
Permit to purchase

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

Idaho has not adopted this policy

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

Illinois has adopted this policy

Does the law cover only handgun purchases, or also rifle and shotgun purchases?
All firearms (handguns, rifles, and shotguns)
When is the background check performed?
Permit to purchase and point-of-sale

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

Indiana has not adopted this policy

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

Iowa has not adopted this policy

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

Kansas has not adopted this policy

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

Kentucky has not adopted this policy

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

Louisiana has not adopted this policy

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

Maine has not adopted this policy

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

Maryland has adopted this policy

Does the law cover only handgun purchases, or also rifle and shotgun purchases?
All firearms (handguns, rifles, and shotguns)
When is the background check performed?
Permit to purchase (for handguns) and point-of-sale (for all guns)

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

Massachusetts has adopted this policy

Does the law cover only handgun purchases, or also rifle and shotgun purchases?
All firearms (handguns, rifles, and shotguns)
When is the background check performed?
Permit to purchase

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

Michigan has adopted this policy

Does the law cover only handgun purchases, or also rifle and shotgun purchases?
Handguns only
When is the background check performed?
Permit to purchase

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

Minnesota has not adopted this policy

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

Mississippi has not adopted this policy

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

Missouri has not adopted this policy

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

Montana has not adopted this policy

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

Nebraska has adopted this policy

Does the law cover only handgun purchases, or also rifle and shotgun purchases?
Handguns only
When is the background check performed?
Permit to purchase

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

Nevada has adopted this policy

Does the law cover only handgun purchases, or also rifle and shotgun purchases?
All firearms (handguns, rifles, and shotguns)
When is the background check performed?
Point-of-sale

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

New Hampshire has not adopted this policy

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

New Jersey has adopted this policy

Does the law cover only handgun purchases, or also rifle and shotgun purchases?
All firearms (handguns, rifles, and shotguns)
When is the background check performed?
Permit to purchase and point-of-sale

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

New Mexico has adopted this policy

Does the law cover only handgun purchases, or also rifle and shotgun purchases?
All firearms (handguns, rifles, and shotguns)
When is the background check performed?
Point-of-sale

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

New York has adopted this policy

Does the law cover only handgun purchases, or also rifle and shotgun purchases?
All firearms (handguns, rifles, and shotguns)
When is the background check performed?
Permit to purchase (for handguns and semiautomatic rifles) and point-of-sale (for all guns)

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

North Carolina has adopted this policy

Does the law cover only handgun purchases, or also rifle and shotgun purchases?
Handguns only
When is the background check performed?
Permit to purchase

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

North Dakota has not adopted this policy

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

Ohio has not adopted this policy

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

Oklahoma has not adopted this policy

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

Oregon has adopted this policy

Does the law cover only handgun purchases, or also rifle and shotgun purchases?
All firearms (handguns, rifles, and shotguns)
When is the background check performed?
Point-of-sale

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

Pennsylvania has adopted this policy

Does the law cover only handgun purchases, or also rifle and shotgun purchases?
Handguns only
When is the background check performed?
Point-of-sale

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

Rhode Island has adopted this policy

Does the law cover only handgun purchases, or also rifle and shotgun purchases?
All firearms (handguns, rifles, and shotguns)
When is the background check performed?
Point-of-sale

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

South Carolina has not adopted this policy

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

South Dakota has not adopted this policy

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

Tennessee has not adopted this policy

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

Texas has not adopted this policy

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

Utah has not adopted this policy

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

Vermont has adopted this policy

Does the law cover only handgun purchases, or also rifle and shotgun purchases?
All firearms (handguns, rifles, and shotguns)
When is the background check performed?
Point-of-sale

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

Virginia has adopted this policy

Does the law cover only handgun purchases, or also rifle and shotgun purchases?
All firearms (handguns, rifles, and shotguns)
When is the background check performed?
Point-of-sale

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

Washington has adopted this policy

Does the law cover only handgun purchases, or also rifle and shotgun purchases?
All firearms (handguns, rifles, and shotguns)
When is the background check performed?
Point-of-sale

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

West Virginia has not adopted this policy

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

Wisconsin has not adopted this policy

Background Check and/or Purchase Permit

Wyoming has not adopted this policy

3. At least 642,306 recovered guns were likely purchased with the intent to use them in a crime.

Of the over 1.4 million crime guns traced over this five-year period, more than 45 percent—642,306—were used in a crime within just three years of their initial retail sale. From 2020 to 2021, the number of guns recovered within three years of purchase increased 33 percent, from 144,102 to 191,763.10US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, “Firearms Trace Data,” 2017 to 2021. This short time-to-crime is a strong indication that the guns were purchased with the intent to divert them to criminal use.11US 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, 74 percent were supplied by a state without background check laws.

4.  At least 122,089 crime guns were likely trafficked across state lines.

Over the five years studied, 122,089 traced crime guns were purchased with the intent to traffic them, and the number of trafficked guns increased 48 percent from 2020 to 2021.12In 2020, 26,099 guns were recovered within three years of purchase in a state other than the source state. In 2021, 38,597 guns were recovered within three years of purchase in a state other than the source state. US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, “Firearms Trace Data,” 2017 to 2021. 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.13US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, “Following the Gun,” 25.

5. Nearly 75 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,14Daniel 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.15Daniel 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 390,154 traced guns that crossed state lines, 74 percent originated in states without background check laws. This factor is even more pronounced for likely trafficked guns: 78 percent of the 122,089 traced guns recovered across state lines within three years came from states without background check laws. Nearly 60 percent 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, Arizona, Texas, Indiana, Virginia, South Carolina, Florida, Nevada, Mississippi, and Alabama, respectively. Learn more about gun safety laws in each of these states and compare them to national standards using Everytown’s Gun Law Rankings tool.

74%

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

78%

78 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 110 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

US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, “Firearms Trace Data,” 2017 to 2021

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 2017 to 2021, the most recent year of data currently available.16US 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, 1.8 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.

Everytown Research & Policy is a program of Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, an independent, non-partisan organization dedicated to understanding and reducing gun violence. Everytown Research & Policy works to do so by conducting methodologically rigorous research, supporting evidence-based policies, and communicating this knowledge to the American public.

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