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ATF Releases New Data on Gun Trafficking

The ATF’s latest report sheds more light on how gun traffickers take advantage of cracks in the firearm supply chain

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) has published the third volume of its National Firearms Commerce and Trafficking Assessment (NFCTA), which focuses on gun trafficking investigations conducted between 2017 and 2021. The ATF’s previous NFCTA volumes, published in May 2022 and January 2023, dealt with firearms in commerce and crime guns, respectively.

The NFCTA Volume III contains several notable data points about gun trafficking — or how guns are diverted from the legal to illegal markets — in the U.S. pulled from thousands of investigations conducted by the ATF between 2017 and 2021. As the ATF notes, the report “represents the first nationwide survey and analysis of ATF firearm trafficking investigations completed since ATF’s 2000 Following the Gun report.”

Here are some key highlights:

  • Between 2017 and 2021, ATF gun trafficking investigations documented nearly 230,000 firearms trafficked in 7,779 cases, with an average of 16 firearms per investigation.
    • Over half of the trafficked firearms were handguns (56%), followed by rifles (19%) and shotguns (4%).
    • The trafficking cases involved new and secondhand firearms 66% and 40% of the time, respectively, and 19% of the cases involved stolen guns. Note: Some cases involve both new and secondhand firearms, hence the overlap.
  • Trafficked firearms were used to commit further crimes in 24% of the cases surveyed where crimes were known to have been committed, including 446 aggravated assaults (19%) and 265 homicides (11%).
  • Gun traffickers obtained their firearms illegally through unlicensed firearm dealers in 41% of cases and straw purchasers in 40% of cases. Straw purchasers are those who illegally buy firearms for those who are most likely prohibited from doing so. Firearms stolen from licensed gun dealers (FFLs) represented 17% of cases involving trafficked guns.
    • The high number of unlicensed dealers drives home the importance of the ATF’s “Engaged in the Business” rule, which would strengthen licensing requirements for those who buy and sell guns.
  • Of 7,350 investigations where the sources and destinations of guns could be identified, 56% involved intrastate trafficking, 32% involved interstate trafficking, and 19% involved international trafficking. Note: Some cases involve multiple types of trafficking, hence the overlap.
    • Georgia and Arizona were the top source states for guns involved in interstate trafficking. Both states are also considered “national failures” in terms of gun laws.
    • Mexico was identified as the “most prevalent” destination country for guns trafficked out of the U.S., accounting for 72% of cases, and Texas and Arizona were the top source states in nearly 40% and 25% of international trafficking cases, respectively.
  • In 432 investigations involving weapons regulated by the National Firearms Act (NFA), 51% involved machine guns or machine gun conversion devices, 24% involved silencers, and 18% involved silencers sold as other items (such as “solvent traps”). Short-barreled rifles were involved in 20% of cases.
    • Speaking of “solvent traps,” the new report notes that the ATF confiscated 68,109 unregistered and unmarked silencers and silencer parts from a single company in 2017, and evidence suggests the company had already trafficked “approximately 35,000 unregistered silencer parts.” The ATF did not name the company.
  • Most privately made firearms (PMFs) — also known as “ghost guns” — involved in the investigations studied were handguns (46%), followed by long guns (39%) and machine gun conversion devices (29%).
    • Of the PMFs identified in trafficking investigations, 82% were made with commercial gun kits.
  • Gun traffickers in the cases studied tended to be white (53%), male (84%), and U.S. citizens (95%).
  • The recipients or end-users of the trafficked firearms tended to be previously convicted felons (60%) and young adults aged 25 to 34 (48%).

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