Newly purchased firearms may play a role in US murder surge, data suggests | Jeff Asher

Murder rose at an unprecedented rate in the United States in 2020 and likely rose again in 2021, but concrete answers about why this appears has been hard to come by.

New data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) provides encouraging clues regarding the potential role of newly purchased firearms in the nationwide increase in murders.

The firearms tracing data, released by ATF in September, shows that law enforcement agencies across the US in 2021 recovered and traced back far more guns than they did in previous years, and that a record number of those guns were recently purchased.

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The ATF’s annual firearms tracing data report calculates the number of guns recovered by law enforcement agencies and traced by ATF to their original retail seller. These guns are generally referred to as “crime guns” although some of them may not have been recovered during the commission of a crime. Guns recovered through buybacks, firearms voluntarily turned into law enforcement and crimes where a firearm was not physically present are not included in the tally.

The number of recovered and traced guns has risen each year since 2010, the first year of available data. That trend accelerated in both 2020 and 2021, with more than 360,000 recovered and traced in 2021, up from fewer than 150,000 in 2010. The ATF reported tracing more recovered crime guns in 2021 than in 2014 and 2015 combined.

Bar chart showing the annual increase in firearms traced and recovered by ATF

Not only did US law enforcement recover more crime guns in 2021, officers also found more guns that were recently purchased.

The ATF agency reports that the share of crime guns that were recovered within two years of purchase jumped from 28% on average between 2010 and 2019 to 47% in 2021. The share of guns that were recovered within one year of purchase rose from 17% between 2010 and 2019 to 29% in 2020 and 32% in 2021.

Line chart showing the increase in the share of traced firearms recovered within two years of initial purchase

Firearms purchases in the US surged amid the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the trend in the ATF data suggests that recently purchased firearms could have contributed to the nationwide increase in gun violence.

However, significant questions remain. The numbers may somewhat reflect heightened enforcement in response to more shootings or improved reporting by law enforcement.

Discerning the share of new crime guns in the 33,000 homicides, attempted homicides, and aggravated assaults with a firearm where a firearm was traced in 2021 could help make the specific dynamics more clear. If newly purchased crime guns are making their way into homicides quicker, then the share of homicides with new crime guns should also be increasing.

This level of granularity is missing from ATF’s data.

The ATF has access to this information but will not provide it to the public, pointing at the Tiahrt Amendment, an amendment to the 2003 Gun Crime Act which limits the agency’s ability to collect and share information from gun traces.

That amendment was changed by lawmakers in 2008 to state it does not prevent “publishing of annual statistical reports on products regulated by ATF” according to the Congressional Research Service. But still, the ATF has fought multiple recent lawsuits relating to FOIA requests to release aggregated firearms trace data beyond what they already produce, including a recent one request for aggregated data on the purchase time since initial purchase of recovered guns broken down by incident type. One court, in dismissing a FOIA request for additional firearm trace data, found that ATF could release more information if it wanted “at its own initiative.”

Improved data reporting on guns recovered and traced by law enforcement is a critical step for analyzing local spikes in gun violence and developing a fuller understanding of how guns are being used in crime nationally. Until then, some answers to why murder has risen nationally may remain tantalizingly out of reach.

Jeff Asher is a crime analyst who writes extensively about homicide trends.

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