In August, police in Pennsylvania and New Jersey arrested three men they said were smuggling untraceable guns across state lines.
Prosecutors have charged the men with several crimes related to a scheme in which they allegedly bought unfinished gun parts in Pennsylvania, assembled them into untraceable firearms with no serial numbers and sold them in New Jersey. Police used a confidential informant to buy nine handguns, six semi-automatic rifles, nine large-capacity magazines and a silencer, according to one of the men’s arrest affidavits.
Unfinished gun parts that don’t meet the legal definition of a firearm aren’t regulated under federal law, which allows people who can legally own guns to build these kinds of untraceable firearms for personal use. But New Jersey is one of a handful of states that require privately made firearms to be registered. The men now face multiple charges of breaking that law.
The case highlights the problem of so-called “ghost guns,” untraceable homemade weapons that can be assembled from kits bought online, in stores or at gun shows — or even 3D printed using plans available online.
“We’re seeing a big increase in them,” Frank Vanore, chief of detectives for the Philadelphia Police Department, said of these homemade weapons.
In 2019, police in Philadelphia recovered 95 ghost guns, according to data the department shared with FiveThirtyEight. Last year, it was 250. This year is on track to double that, with 389 recovered as of Sept. 10.
That rise tracks with a broader national trend, experts say. But it’s still just roughly 9 percent of the 4,190 guns that Philadelphia police recovered during the same time period this year. Most guns involved in crimes took more well-worn routes, like straw purchasing or theft, Vanore said.
Vanore said the ways guns were trafficked made it hard to answer basic questions like how many might be stolen each year. Often, he said, police found trafficked guns only after they were used in a crime. Experts who spoke with FiveThirtyEight said there was no clear, national data on how crime guns go from manufacturers and dealers to the black market, how trafficking differed from state to state or even the street price of trafficked firearms in different markets. The most recent federal report on gun trafficking dates from 2000, and it used data from 1996 to 1998.
President Biden’s administration is looking to change that with a new trafficking report, due out next year, that the administration says will be updated annually. Still, Congress has strictly limited what gun data can be released. And even then, federal officials may not have a complete picture of how many crime guns local police recover, nor where they come from, experts say.
“Ideal world, what we do is every time a gun is connected to a crime or a violent crime, there’s an exhaustive investigation that connects the dots and sort of traces the path of that gun to that criminal or crime scene,” said Daniel Webster, director of the Center for Gun Violence Prevention and Policy at Johns Hopkins University. “And the truth is, that almost never happens.”
Lots of guns but little data
Any gun can become a crime gun — it just has to be used in a crime. In 2012, Webster and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins looked at 2004 data on where people in state prisons had obtained the gun(s) they used to commit their most recent crimes. And the researchers found that in the 13 states with the most lenient gun laws, about 60 percent of the inmates had been legal gun owners.
Still, studies in other states and cities have found that most guns used in crimes were purchased illegally.
There are about 400 million guns and about 100 million gun owners in the United States, according to Tom Chittum, the number-two official at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF. But Chittum was quick to add, “The vast majority of those [firearms] are never going to be used in a crime.”
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When a gun is used in a crime, local law enforcement can submit it to ATF for tracing. The bureau then uses the gun’s unique serial number to trace it to the original dealer, which must maintain records of every sale for at least 20 years. In 2019, the average time from when a gun was first purchased to when it was traced by ATF — a metric the bureau calls “time to crime” — was 8.29 years. But that metric comes with a big caveat. Since ATF traces only to the first retail sale, it can’t see if someone bought a preowned gun at a pawnshop and then used it in a crime the next day, for example. The same goes for private sales and trafficked weapons. Any tracing beyond the first sale is up to local law enforcement. In other words, the time-to-crime metric is limited in what it says about where crime guns originate from.
“There are some gaps in there, and it’s hard for us to always identify when these things occur,” Chittum said. “But we do what we can with what we have.”
The same is true of the handful of local, state and federal prison surveys that asked people convicted of crimes involving guns where they got their weapons. Often, Webster said, their answer was “on the street.” But that doesn’t say much about how a weapon got from a legitimate dealer to the street in the first place.
“[The surveys] only ask about the most immediate transfer,” Webster said. “And it doesn’t tell you the path which that gun took to get to that individual.”
How a legal gun becomes a crime gun
No expert who spoke with FiveThirtyEight would put a number on the different ways guns wound up on the street, but they did give a breakdown of the major categories. Two of the most prominent are straw purchases and thefts — although ghost guns, the secondary market and failures in the background check system also contribute to the problem.
The ways that guns are trafficked, though, can make it difficult to know how a firearm wound up in the wrong hands, often by design.
In a straw purchase, for example, someone buys a gun on behalf of someone else — either because the real buyer can’t legally own a gun or because they don’t want the gun traced to them. Straw purchasing is illegal under federal law, but it can be tricky to spot since it’s legal to buy a gun as a legitimate gift for someone else — as is selling a gun you own, so long as you’re not “engaged in the business” of dealing guns.
Because straw purchasing can be so hard to spot, law enforcement often detects it only once a gun has been used in a violent crime, according to Chittum. “The straws, by their very nature, don’t have any criminal history or any serious criminal history — at least no criminal history that would prohibit them [from legally owning a gun],” he said.
Theft is another major way that guns move to the illegal market. Criminals have been known to use vehicles to smash through the fronts of gun stores, and ATF said it now had a 100 percent response rate when there was a burglary at a licensed firearms dealer. But thefts from dealers are “a drop in the bucket” when compared to thefts from individuals, Chittum said.
Data from the Philadelphia Police Department shows 1,009 guns stolen in 2019 and 1,244 stolen in 2020. This year, the department had recorded 855 gun thefts as of Sept. 10 — on track to meet or exceed last year’s total.
Vanore said the city saw a decline in thefts from residences because more people stayed home during the pandemic, yet thefts from cars skyrocketed.
Other experts say it’s not uncommon for criminals to break into cars outside events that ban weapons — at a stadium, for example — or to target vehicles where there’s some visible indication that the owner might be a gun enthusiast.
Peter Gagliardi is a law enforcement consultant who spent more than two decades as an ATF special agent. He said people sometimes telegraphed that they were gun owners, which allowed criminals to “know where the fish are.”
“They throw a line in,” he said. “Maybe they catch one, maybe they don’t.”
Things get messy when law enforcement sees the same person reporting several thefts over a period of time. Sometimes, straw purchasers will report the guns they buy for other people as stolen to cover their tracks. Those false reports can muddy the data on gun trafficking, but they can also help law enforcement uncover straw-purchasing schemes.
“As you start to dig into these, you kind of see that the same person reported multiple guns stolen over the last year or two, and that’s when it starts to become somewhat suspicious and we begin to look at it a little more closely,” Vanore said.
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Then there are ghost guns. Building one isn’t trivial, and 3D printing one can take special skill, as Vice News showed in a recent video documentary. But companies sell kits online that allow people to make fully functional handguns and rifles from their homes with just a few tools, some know-how and a little time. Step-by-step instructions are easy to find on YouTube.
The weapons have been showing up at crime scenes with increasing frequency, too, according to experts — including at least two mass shootings and one school shooting in California. ATF is finalizing new federal regulations that would change the definition of a “firearm” under federal law, potentially making it much harder to build an untraceable weapon. But a federal appeals court also loosened restrictions this year on digital blueprints for 3D-printed guns, which could make ghost guns more readily accessible.
Some crime guns also come from the secondary market — gun shows, online classifieds sites that specialize in firearms as well as other private sales that don’t require a background check under federal law.
Again, private sales can be hard to distinguish from straw purchases. As Chittum explained, if you meet up with someone in a gas station parking lot to transfer a gun you just bought on their behalf, that’s an illegal straw purchase. But if you buy a gun, decide it was a waste of money half an hour later and offer to sell it to the person at the next gas pump for cash, that’s legal in most states — federal law doesn’t require a background check for private sales.
Finally, problems with the gun background check system sometimes let people who can’t legally own a gun buy one from a licensed dealer. It’s impossible to know how many times that happens each year because of how the FBI stores gun background check records. But there have been several high-profile shootings where the shooter bought their weapon because the background check system failed, including the 2017 shooting at a church in Texas, the 2015 shooting at a church in South Carolina and the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech.
In 2019, the last year for which data is available, every state and territory was its own biggest source of crime guns that were traced by ATF, with just three exceptions — Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Washington, D.C.
That doesn’t mean interstate trafficking isn’t a problem with crime guns, though. In New York, for example, more than twice as many guns involved in crimes came from southern states as came from in-state, following a route known as the “iron pipeline.”
During Gagliardi’s time as special agent in charge of ATF’s New York Division, many of the crime guns he saw came from southern states with less restrictive gun laws, he said.
“Heat flows from hot to cold,” he said.
The gun industry’s role
ATF’s 2000 report found that licensed gun dealers were involved in less than 10 percent of its trafficking investigations from July 1996 to December 1998. But that small percentage was responsible for nearly half of all the trafficked firearms the bureau investigated during that period.
Yet, in 2003, Congress passed an appropriations rider known as the Tiahrt Amendment — named after its sponsor, then-Rep. Todd Tiahrt of Kansas, a Republican — that blocks ATF from releasing gun trace data, except for some official purposes.
There hasn’t been a trace report since. The bureau can still release aggregate statistics but not detailed data that could identify corrupt gun dealers, for example.
“A lot of this information is hard to get [now], and that’s precisely the intent of the gun industry,” said Rob Wilcox, federal legal director for the gun control group Everytown.
The gun industry, though, says it has worked with ATF and individual dealers to crack down on gun trafficking. The National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents the industry, runs a training program for gun dealers and an advertising campaign to discourage straw purchasing, and it provides dealers with resources to prevent thefts. The group also matches ATF’s rewards for information on gun-store burglaries.
Lawrence Keane, the foundation’s senior vice president of government and public affairs, said his group supported increased funding to ATF and the gun background check system, which is operated by the FBI.
“You walk into a Republican appropriator’s office and say you want more money for ATF, you get kind of a strange look,” he said. “But we have, and we’ve been successful.”
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Keane said he was skeptical about whether there was indeed a rise in the use of ghost guns for crimes. He’s “never seen the data,” he said.
It’s emblematic of the larger gun debate, where the two sides can barely agree on what the facts are — much less what policies could change them.
Back in Philadelphia, Frank Vanore, the police detective, is worried about how many young people are carrying weapons. The city recently surpassed 400 homicides for the second year in only two decades, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. One of those victims, 15-year-old Simone-Monea Rogers, died in August after being shot in the face by a stray bullet while playing basketball on a playground.
Vanore said the incident showed the human cost behind the muddled data and policy debates around gun trafficking — and the need to get more weapons off the street.
“They use that gun, their life’s done,” he said. “You know what I mean? They fire that gun, there’s no bringing that bullet back.”
This story is part of “Rethinking Gun Violence,” an ABC News series examining the level of gun violence in the U.S. — and what can be done about it.