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Using Trace Data to Police Illicitly Obtained Firearms

Date Published
June 4, 2013

How do guns get into the wrong hands? One way to answer this question is use trace data — that is, the original sales information for guns that were eventually recovered by law enforcement. In some states, records on subsequent, private sales of firearms are also available.

These data can help investigators answer questions like "Where are illegally obtained guns coming from?", "Who buys guns that later end up seized by police?" and "How long does it take for a gun, once legally purchased, to move into criminal use?" The answers to these sorts of questions help law enforcement take steps to keep guns from getting into the wrong hands. They can also help policymakers understand what types of regulation are and are not helpful in fighting illegal firearms trafficking.

Research Using Trace Data and Secondary Purchases

In an NIJ-supported study, researchers looked at national trace data as well as data on secondary purchases in the state of California, which mandates recordkeeping for secondary firearms sales. For four years of data pulled from these records, they examined the amount of time that elapsed between a firearm's last legal sale and its recovery by law enforcement. (If this time is short, it can indicate illegal trafficking.) Then, they examined their findings in the context of state firearms regulations and enforcement to see whether state laws can have an effect on trafficking.

The researchers' results found that records of secondary sales, as mandated in California, are useful in identifying guns that may have been trafficked. They also found that it took longer for guns to eventually be recovered by police in those states that had laws regulating both firearm purchase and registration compared to states that had only one type of these laws and states that had neither. The researchers argue that this suggests that strong state firearms regulation can make it more difficult for criminals to acquire firearms.

About This Article

The research described in this article was funded by NIJ award 2007-IJ-CX-0030, awarded to . This article is based on the grantee report “New Approaches to Understanding and Regulating Primary and Secondary Illegal Firearms” (pdf, 177 pages) by Glenn Pierce, Anthony Braga, Garen Wintemute, and Matthew Dolliver.

Date Published: June 4, 2013