To understand the movement of guns recovered in connection with crimes—referred to as “crime guns”—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. ATF has found that, among traced crime guns, “new guns that have moved rapidly from the shelf of a federal firearms license to recovery by law enforcement in three years or less . . . may have been trafficked.” This short “time-to-crime” when combined with other factors, like crossing a state border, is a strong indicator that a gun was trafficked. 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 here as “background check laws,” to gain insight into the flow of crime guns in the United States.
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” or “background check requirements.” This original data, compiled by Everytown, consider 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 Several states have added or repealed background check laws subsequent to the study period: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.
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.
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. Thus, federal data used in this report may be an underestimate of the true problem. 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.
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.
A crime gun becomes a “traced gun” when law enforcement officials request the ATF to trace the gun’s sale history. See “Gun tracing” above.
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 firearm trafficking.
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.
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.