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Frequently Asked Questions About Gun Trafficking

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This fact sheet will be periodically updated to account for new policy developments. It was last updated on August 20, 2021. Click here to view other fact sheets in this series.

What is gun trafficking?

Gun trafficking is the movement of guns from legal to illegal streams of commerce and occurs both within states and across state lines.1 As former Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) Director Bradley Buckles stated in a 2000 report, “Virtually every crime gun in the United States starts off as a legal firearm,”2 making the need to prevent gun trafficking a crucial part of a comprehensive approach to reducing gun-related crime. Guns are diverted into illegal gun markets in three common ways: straw purchases; secondary sales through private sellers; and theft from individual gun owners or firearm dealers.3

Straw purchasing occurs when an individual who is not prohibited from buying a gun purchases a firearm on behalf of someone else—usually someone who is prohibited by law from purchasing or possessing a firearm. For example, in February 2020, a 41-year-old male purchased firearms in Virginia on behalf of a third party who then resold the firearm to a man in New York City.4 In another case, in September 2018, ATF arrested and charged five individuals who had purchased 30 firearms on behalf of prohibited buyers in Vermont—firearms that the ATF believe were smuggled to Boston.5

Gun diversion also occurs through private gun sales that do not require a background check. Under current federal law, licensed gun dealers are required to conduct a background check prior to every gun sale. However, private individuals who are not so licensed are free to sell guns without a background check. While 22 states and the District of Columbia have acted to close this gap in the law and require a background check for these private sales, 28 states still do not have these requirements.6 This means that individuals who are prohibited from purchasing and possessing a firearm—such as a violent felony conviction or a history of domestic violence—can easily gain access to a gun through private sales and then funnel them to trafficking channels.

And finally, gun diversion often occurs through gun theft. An estimated 300,000 guns are stolen from gun dealers and private gun owners every year and are then frequently used in the commission of violent crimes.7 Data from ATF show that, from 2012 to 2019, more than 17,000 firearms recovered and traced after use in a crime had been reported stolen or missing by licensed gun dealers.8

What are some common signs of gun trafficking that appear in ATF data?

While there are minimal data about gun trafficking in the United States, some indicators of trafficking activity are ascertainable by analyzing ATF data about guns that are recovered in connection with violent crime and traced to determine their origin. One such indicator is “time to crime”—the time that elapses between when a gun is first purchased at retail and when it is used in connection with a crime. Because the purchase of a gun shortly before it is used in a crime suggests that it was purchased for that intent, law enforcement officials consider guns that have a time to crime of three years or less to be likely objects of trafficking. Nationally, 110,700 recovered crime guns had a short time to crime in 2019, compared with 46,755 in 2012—a 137 percent increase.9 However, states vary widely when it comes to average time to crime, suggesting that some states have a larger problem than others when it comes to gun trafficking. A 2018 analysis by The Trace found that the states that exported the highest share of short time-to-crime guns of one year or less were Nevada, Missouri, and Virginia.10

A second sign of gun trafficking is the movement of guns across state lines before their use in a crime. According to data from ATF, from 2010 to 2019, 29 percent of total crime guns recovered and traced were first purchased from a licensed gun dealer in a state other than the one in which the crime was committed.11 Close to 50 percent of these firearms originated in just 10 states: Georgia, Texas, Virginia, Florida, Arizona, Indiana, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Ohio. The flow of guns tends to move from states with weaker gun laws to those with stronger gun laws.12 In New Jersey and New York—two states with some of the strongest gun laws in the country according to the Giffords Law Center Gun Law Scorecard—79 percent and 72 percent of recovered crime guns originated out of state, respectively.13 Similarly, close to 50 percent of crime guns recovered in Illinois originate out of state, with 15 percent alone coming from the state of Indiana.14

Is international gun trafficking also a problem?

Yes. The biggest recipients of U.S. guns are Canada and Mexico. From 2014 to 2019, there were more than 11,000 firearms recovered in Canada that originated in the United States. Tragically, some firearms used in Canada’s worst mass shooting—perpetrated in Nova Scotia in April 2020—were acquired in Maine and later smuggled into Canada.15 And, from 2014 to 2019, more than 70,000 U.S. guns were recovered in Mexico.16 However, the number of recovered and traced firearms could represent only a small portion of the large number of firearms that are trafficked across the U.S.-Mexico border every year. A 2013 study found that, between 2010 and 2012, close to 213,000 firearms were purchased annually in the United States and subsequently trafficked to Mexico.17 In fact, the Mexican government has sued American manufacturers for allegedly facilitating and marketing the sale of firearms to criminal groups in Mexico.18

U.S.-sourced guns are also frequently trafficked to other parts of the world. From 2014 to 2019, more than 15,000 guns that originated in the United States were recovered in connection with crimes in Central America, particularly in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.19 During the same period, more than 6,000 U.S. firearms were recovered in the Caribbean, mainly in Jamaica and the Bahamas.20 U.S. firearms are also a concern for South American nations. While ATF does not publicize trace data regarding crime guns recovered in South America, making it difficult to ascertain the scope of the problem in that part of the world, the federal police of Brazil reported that the United States is the biggest source of foreign firearms in the country and that most of these weapons are handguns and assault rifles.21 Firearms purchased in the United States have also been used by drug traffickers in Colombia and have even reached Chile, the southernmost nation on the continent.22

The impact has been devastating. Latin America is the region with the highest level of gun homicides in the world: According to a 2020 study, close to 75 percent of homicides are perpetrated with a firearm compared with 44 percent worldwide.23

Is gun trafficking illegal?

There is no specific crime of gun trafficking under U.S. federal law, and lawmakers have introduced legislation to create new crimes of gun trafficking and straw purchasing.24 However, even in the absence of these dedicated crimes, some of the conduct underlying gun trafficking does violate current federal law. For example, it is illegal to straw purchase a firearm on behalf of another person, a crime that is generally charged as making a false statement in connection with a gun sale facilitated by a licensed gun dealer.25 It is also a violation of federal law for an individual to buy a handgun in a state in which they are not a resident26 and to provide a gun to someone while “knowing or having reasonable cause to believe” that they are prohibited from possessing one under federal law.27

Gun trafficking also violates some state laws. For example, California, Connecticut, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island have laws that penalize individuals who purchase firearms with the intent of supplying them to traffickers.28

Additionally, the Biden administration recently announced a new enforcement initiative targeting gun trafficking in five high-risk areas across the country. This initiative includes coordination between the U.S. Department of Justice, local law enforcement agencies, and ATF to mitigate gun trafficking. In addition to focusing criminal enforcement resources on individuals engaged in illegal gun trafficking, the plan also includes strengthening regulatory enforcement over gun dealers who contribute to gun trafficking by failing to fully comply with federal law regarding the operation of their businesses.29

Endnotes

  1. Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, “Trafficking and Straw Purchasing,” available at https://giffords.org/lawcenter/gun-laws/policy-areas/crime-guns/trafficking-straw-purchasing/ (last accessed July 2021).
  2. U.S. Department of the Treasury and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, “Following the Gun: Enforcing Federal Laws Against Firearms Traffickers” (Washington: 2000), available at https://www.hsdl.org/?abstract&did=1622.
  3. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, “How Guns Flow from Legal to Illegal Commerce,” available at https://www.atf.gov/resource-center/infographics/how-guns-flow-legal-illegal-commerce (last accessed July 2021).
  4. G. Zachary Terwilliger, “Straw Purchaser Convicted for Role in Firearms Trafficking,” Bureau for Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Press release, February 27, 2020, available at https://www.atf.gov/news/pr/straw-purchaser-convicted-role-firearms-trafficking.
  5. Christina Nolan, “Five Arrested and Charged as Straw Purchasers of 30 Firearms,” Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Press release, September 13, 2018, available at https://www.atf.gov/news/pr/five-arrested-and-charged-straw-purchasers-30-firearms.
  6. Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, “Universal Background Checks,” available at https://giffords.org/lawcenter/gun-laws/policy-areas/background-checks/universal-background-checks/https://giffords.org/lawcenter/gun-laws/policy-areas/background-checks/universal-background-checks/ (last accessed July 2021).
  7. Chelsea Parsons and Eugenio Weigend Vargas, “Stolen Guns in America: A State-by-State Analysis” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2017), available at https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/guns-crime/reports/2017/07/25/436533/stolen-guns-america/.
  8. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, “Firearms Trace Data – 2019,” available at https://www.atf.gov/resource-center/firearms-trace-data-2019 (last accessed July 2021).  
  9. Center for American Progress Analysis of Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, “Data and Statistics: Firearms Trace Data,” available at https://www.atf.gov/resource-center/data-statistics (last accessed June 2021).
  10. Alex Yablon and Daniel Nass, “Potential Gun Trafficking Hubs Revealed in ATF Data,” The Trace, October 24, 2019, available at https://www.thetrace.org/2019/10/gun-trafficking-hubs-atf-time-to-crime/. This means that the percentage of total short time to crime guns sourced back to the state was higher in these states. The Trace consider guns that have a time to crime of less than a year to be short time to crime.
  11. Center for American Progress analysis of Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, “Data and Statistics: Firearms Trace Data,” available at https://www.atf.gov/resource-center/data-statistics (last accessed June 2021).   
  12. Brian Knight, “State Gun Policy and Cross-State Externalities: Evidence from Crime Gun Tracing,” American Economic Journal: Economic Policy 4 (4) (2013): 200­–229, available at https://www.aeaweb.org/articles?id=10.1257/pol.5.4.200.
  13. Center for American Progress analysis of Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, “Data and Statistics: Firearms Trace Data,” available at https://www.atf.gov/resource-center/data-statistics (last accessed June 2021).  
  14. Ibid.
  15. Alexander MacDougall, “Canada’s worst mass shooting was committed with guns from Maine,” 13 WGME, January 27, 2021, available at https://wgme.com/news/local/canadas-worst-mass-shooting-was-committed-with-guns-from-maine.
  16. Center for American Progress Analysis of Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives “Data and Statistics: International Firearms Trace Data,” available at https://www.atf.gov/resource-center/data-statistics/ (last accessed June 2021).
  17. Topher McDougal and others, “The Way of the Gun: Estimating Firearms Trafficking Across US-Mexico Border,” Journal of Economic Geography 15 (2) (2015): 297–327, available at https://academic.oup.com/joeg/article-abstract/15/2/297/929819.  
  18. Natalie Kitroeff and Oscar Lopez, “Mexico Sues Gun Companies in U.S., Accusing Them of Fueling Violence,” The New York Times, August 4, 2021, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/04/world/americas/mexico-lawsuit-gun-companies.html.
  19. Center for American Progress analysis of Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, “Data and Statistics: International Firearms Trace Data.”
  20. Ibid.
  21. Lissandra Paraguassu and Ricardo Brito, “U.S. biggest source of illegal foreign guns in Brazil: report,” Reuters, January 18, 2018, available at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-brazil-arms/u-s-biggest-source-of-illegal-foreign-guns-in-brazil-report-idUSKBN1EZ2M5.  
  22. Adriaan Alsema, “Guns bought legally in US arming narcos in Colombia: Police,” Colombia Reports, February 4, 2016, available at https://colombiareports.com/how-guns-bought-legally-in-us-end-up-arming-illegal-armed-groups-in-colombia/; Parker Asmann, “Chile Dismantles ‘First’ Arms Trafficking Ring Importing US Weapons,” Insight Crime, May 11, 2018, available at https://insightcrime.org/news/brief/chile-first-arms-trafficking-us-weapons/.
  23. Katherine Aguirre and Robert Muggah, “Arming the Americas,” The Oxford Handbook of the Sociology of Latin America, October 2020, available at https://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780190926557.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780190926557-e-45?fbclid=IwAR1xaveAplDj8WG-Fxjzq4PEK3cDFQn3QXoJJveNAlpYrzajyP9ZkddrLao&result=&rskey=gKFxdg&utm_campaign=clipping_institucional_dia_a_dia&utm_medium=email&utm_source=RD+Station.
  24. Stop Illegal Trafficking in Firearms Act of 2021, S. 878, 117th Cong., 1st sess. (March 22, 2021), available at https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/senate-bill/878/text; Gun Trafficking Prohibition Act, H.R. 30, 117th Cong., 1st sess. (March 1, 2021), available at https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/30/text.
  25. Legal Information Institute, “18 U.S. Code § 922 – Unlawful Acts: (a)(6),” available at https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/922 (last accessed August 2021).
  26. Hansi Lo Wang, “’Straw Buyers’ Of Guns Break the Law—And Often Get Away With It,” NPR, December 9, 2015, available at https://www.npr.org/2015/12/09/459053141/straw-buyers-of-guns-break-the-law-and-often-get-away-with-it; Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, “Interstate & Online Gun Sales,” available at https://giffords.org/lawcenter/gun-laws/policy-areas/background-checks/interstate-online-gun-sales/ (last accessed August 2021). There is an exception to the prohibition on buying handguns from out-of-state sellers if the sale is facilitated by a second licensed gun dealer conducting business in the state of the buyer’s residence.
  27. Legal Information Institute, “18 U.S. Code § 922 – Unlawful Acts: (d),” available at https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/922 (last accessed August 2021).
  28. Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, “Trafficking and Straw Purchasing.”
  29. Andy Grimm, “Chicago in spotlight as Biden targets guns with summer anti-crime agenda,” The Chicago Sun Times, June 23, 2021, available at https://chicago.suntimes.com/crime/2021/6/23/22547907/chicago-gun-violence-biden-anti-crime-plan; The White House, “Fact Sheet: Biden-Harris Administration Announces Comprehensive Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gun Crime and Ensure Public Safety,” Press release, June 23, 2021, available at https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/06/23/fact-sheet-biden-harris-administration-announces-comprehensive-strategy-to-prevent-and-respond-to-gun-crime-and-ensure-public-safety/.