About the project: The Hidden Life of Guns

Saturday, January 22, 2011; 9:46 PM

The Hidden Life of Guns is a year-long effort by reporters David S. Fallis, James V. Grimaldi, Sari Horwitz and Cheryl W. Thompson to document the way guns move through American society, from retail sales to street crimes. This installment looks at the effect in Virginia of the assault weapons ban on firearms with high-capacity magazines like the one used in the Tucson shootings.


6Catch up on earlier coverage from the series.

About the reporting

The Washington Post analysis was conducted using a little-known database maintained by Virginia State Police called the Criminal Firearms Clearinghouse that tracks guns recovered by local law enforcement officers across the state. The Post obtained the database last year to circumvent a congressional ban on the release of federal data about guns recovered by law enforcement officers.

The Clearinghouse contains information about more than 100,000 guns recovered in Virginia since 1993 by more than 200 agencies. Local police are required by law to report "all firearms seized, forfeited, found . . . which are believed to have been used in the commission of a crime." Reports include the circumstances of the gun's recovery and a physical description of the weapon, including its magazine capacity or cylinder size.

The database is not a complete listing of all guns recovered by local police in Virginia because some agencies fail to report. Researchers said they knew of no other jurisdiction with such an extensive database of recovered guns that also tracks magazine capacity. The database was last updated in August, and reporting for 2010 was incomplete.

To identify patterns, The Post looked at changes in the percentage of recovered firearms that had high-capacity magazines. Guns listed with capacities of more than 10 bullets were assumed to have been equipped with high-capacity magazines. A small percentage of those firearms may be .22-caliber guns with higher-capacity tubular magazines that were exempted from the now-defunct assault weapons ban.

About the numbers

Here are the numbers of recovered guns reported annually by local police and the number of those guns listed as having a magazine capacity of 11 or more bullets.

Year Total High capacity
Totals 100,806 15,735

Note: 1993 and 2010 are partial years only. Data on magazine capacity was not available in some cases.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company