Interstate firearms trafficking flourishes, in part, because states regulate firearm sales differently and there is no federal limitation on the number of guns that an individual may purchase at any one time.1

More than half a million firearms are stolen each year in the United States and more than half of stolen firearms are handguns, many of which are subsequently sold illegally.2

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (“ATF”) issued a comprehensive report in 2000 detailing firearms trafficking investigations involving more than 84,000 diverted firearms, finding that federally licensed firearms dealers were associated with the largest number of trafficked guns – over 40,000 – and concluded that the dealers’ “access to large numbers of firearms makes them a particular threat to public safety when they fail to comply with the law.”3

According to ATF, one percent of federally licensed firearms dealers are responsible for selling almost 60 percent of the guns that are found at crime scenes and traced to dealers.4

Nearly a quarter of ATF gun trafficking investigations involved stolen firearms and were associated with over 11,000 trafficked firearms – including 10% percent of the investigations which involved guns stolen from residences.5

ATF’s limited compliance inspections between 2008 and 2010 found that over 62,000 firearms were missing from licensees’ inventories with no record of sale.6 The Bureau also identified over 16,000 firearms that had disappeared from gun manufacturers’ inventories without explanation between 2009 and the middle of 2011.7

A 1997 U.S. Department of Justice survey found that 8.4% of state prison inmates who used or possessed a firearm during the offense for which they were incarcerated obtained the gun from the illegal market.8

Random inspections by ATF have uncovered that a large percentage of dealers violate federal law, and that percentage is growing.9

An estimated 40% of the guns acquired in the U.S. annually come from unlicensed sellers who are not required by federal law to conduct background checks on gun purchasers.10

Nearly 80% of Mexico’s illegal firearms and most recovered crime guns in major Canadian cities are imported illegally from the U.S.11

For additional information on illegal gun trafficking and gun tracing, visit the Mayors Against Illegal Guns’ Trace Data Center. For additional information about private sales, including background information and state and local laws on the topic, see the Law Center’s Private Sales Policy Summary.

  1. Douglas S. Weil & Rebecca C. Knox, Effects of Limiting Handgun Purchases on Interstate Transfer of Firearms, JAMA 1759, 1759-60 (1996). ⤴︎
  2. Philip J. Cook & James A. Leitzel, “Smart” Guns: A Technological Fix for Regulating the Secondary Market 7, Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy, Duke University, Working Paper Series SAN01-10 (July 2001). ⤴︎
  3. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, U.S. Department of the Treasury, Following the Gun: Enforcing Federal Laws Against Firearms Traffickers ix, x (June 2000). ⤴︎
  4. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, U.S. Department of the Treasury, Commerce in Firearms in the United States 14 (Feb. 2000). ⤴︎
  5. Id. at 11, 41. ⤴︎
  6. Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, Missing Guns 1 (January 2011). ⤴︎
  7. Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, Missing Guns: Lost and Dangerous 1 (September 2011). ⤴︎
  8. Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report, U.S. Department of Justice, Firearm Use by Offenders: Survey of Inmates in State and Federal Correctional Facilities 6 (Nov. 2001), at ⤴︎
  9. Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, “‘Trivial Violations’? The Myth of Overzealous Federal Enforcement Actions Against Licensed Gun Dealers” 1 (Sept. 2006). ⤴︎
  10. Philip J. Cook & Jens Ludwig, Guns in America: National Survey on Private Ownership and Use of Firearms, U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice Research in Brief 6-7 (May 1997). ⤴︎
  11. Wintemute, Garen J., Gun Shows Across a Multistate American Gun Market: Observational Evidence of the Effects of Regulatory Policies, 13 Inj. Prevention 150, 150 (2007), at “ See also Alicia A. Caldwell, ATF: Most Illegal Guns in Mexico Come from U.S., Associated Press, Aug. 11, 2008 (ATF states that nearly all illegal guns seized in Mexico – 90 to 95 percent – originally come from the U.S.). ⤴︎