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Illegal Firearms Trafficking

Date Published
April 10, 2013

Federal law prohibits the sale of firearms or ammunition to juveniles and people who have been convicted of felonies and some violent misdemeanors. Federally mandated background checks keep these people from buying firearms at licensed dealers. Prohibited buyers may turn to the largely unregulated secondary market — gun sales between private individuals. The secondary market is a major source of guns used in crimes.

Why do people buy guns illegally? While some may buy them with the intent of using them in a crime, reasons can vary. Boston's Operation Ceasefire, a successful gun violence intervention, found that youths frequently acquire guns because they're afraid of being a target of violence from others.

Trace Data Can Illuminate Illegal Firearms Markets

Records of firearms and ammunition sales can help law enforcement and researchers untangle these illegal firearms markets. If a gun is part of a criminal investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) can trace it — that is, the ATF can provide information to law enforcement on a gun's movement through the supply chain to its first retail purchase. Some states, such as California, mandate the documentation of secondary-market firearms sales or require dealers to log ammunition sales. This information can help crime investigators develop leads about a gun-related crime.

By analyzing patterns in these data, researchers and law enforcement can identify potential traffickers and begin to understand how firearms move into illegal use. For example, researchers in Los Angeles and those with Boston's Operation Ceasefire both found that there is very little interstate trafficking in firearms that are used in crimes. Instead, most crime guns, especially those that move very quickly from legal sale into criminal use, were originally purchased legally in the local area.

Trace Data Can Help Stop Trafficking

Interventions to stop gun trafficking can use these data in different ways. The Operation Ceasefire Working Group, which first met in January 1995, decided to focus on traffickers of the types of guns used by Boston street gangs. The ATF worked closely with Boston police to flag guns that had recently been purchased illegally and used in a crime. In Los Angeles, a working group that was focused on reducing illegal trafficking created a warning letter campaign aimed at discouraging local citizens from selling their guns illegally.

Learn more:

The following pages discuss NIJ-supported research aimed at understanding and combating illegal markets in firearms and ammunition.

Date Published: April 10, 2013