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Criminal Purchase of Firearm Ammunition

Date Published
May 31, 2008

Public efforts to restrict firepower among those most prone to violence generally focus only on guns, not ammunition. For example, firearms dealers run the names of would-be gun buyers through an instant background check system to verify whether the person is legally allowed to own a gun. But although the same restrictions technically apply, ammunition purchasers are not subject to the same background check. This means that people who shouldn't be able to buy ammunition might be doing just that.

Research on illegal gun markets in the streets of Chicago shows that criminals already have a more difficult time buying ammunition than buying guns.[1] If retail sales of ammunition were more tightly controlled to keep ammunition from falling into the wrong hands, would this squeeze the illegal market even further, and, perhaps, reduce gun violence?

About the Research

To answer questions about ammunition markets, NIJ-funded researchers worked with the Southern California Regional Crime Gun Center, operated by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. They studied the handwritten logs of two months' worth of ammunition sales in 2004 from federally licensed dealers in the city. (A local ordinance requires these dealers to record ammunition buyers' names, addresses, thumbprints, state-issued ID numbers and other personal data. Police periodically collect the logs, but until 2004, they did not reference them unless they were investigating a specific crime.)

The researchers found that 2.8 percent of the 2,540 ammunition purchases during this period were by people who were not legally allowed to own ammunition. All told, these illegal buyers bought more than 10,000 rounds of ammunition (2.3 percent of the total). Most of the buyers were local. A few, however, lived in the high-crime neighborhoods in the south of the city. The researchers suspected that buyers in these neighborhoods went just over the border to stores in L.A. County.

These data demonstrate that the data-logging requirement is not deterring many restricted people from buying ammunition. The researchers argue that consistent requirements across jurisdictions and a greater use of the log books by investigators could help locate people who own guns illegally and stem the flow of deadly firepower into the hands of people most likely to use it for violence.

About This Article

The research described in this article was funded by NIJ award 2001-IJ-CX-0028, awarded to RAND Corporation. This article is based on the grantee report “Strategies for Disrupting Illegal Firearm Markets: A Case Study of Los Angeles” (pdf, 111 pages).

Date Published: May 31, 2008