Owner Michele Pierson makes '#GILROYSTRONG' T-shirts at her Cal Silk shop two days after a mass shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival on July 30 in Gilroy, Calif. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The rifle used to kill three people at a food festival in Gilroy, Calif., on Sunday was not legal to own in that state. The man police have accused as the gunman apparently evaded security by cutting through a fence to enter the venue. To obtain the weapon, he did much the same thing, purchasing it from a retailer in Nevada, where buying and selling the model that was used doesn’t violate the law.

This is not uncommon. Particularly in states where gun laws are more strict, firearms recovered by law enforcement are often found to have originated in other states. For example, several years ago, we looked at data on firearms recovered in Chicago. About a fifth of those weapons were purchased in nearby Indiana.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives collects annual data on the points of origin of firearms recovered in every state. In 2017, most of the guns recovered in California originated in that state, which is normally the case. Of the 9,654 weapons that originated outside the state, 1,554 came from Nevada. An additional 2,185 came from Arizona. (ATF lists the 15 states that were the most common source for recovered weapons.)


(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

Notice, though, that the weapons came from across the country, including from as far east as Florida, North Carolina and Georgia.

Georgia, in fact, was one of the top 15 origin states for no fewer than 45 other states and the District of Columbia. Meaning it was one of the most common sources for out-of-state weapons in nearly every other state in the country. The only state that turned up as a source for other states more often was Florida. Only in Hawaii, Idaho and Iowa was Florida not one of the most common points of origin for recovered weapons.

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Part of that is a function of population. There are a lot of people in Florida moving around the country. Part of it, too, may be a function of gun laws. There’s a loose correlation between the number of guns that turn up in other states and the number of gun deaths in the originating state — which is itself linked to the strength of gun laws.


(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

Another indicator of a link to gun laws is ATF data itself. D.C., for example, is the only locale in which most of the recovered weapons originated elsewhere (primarily Virginia). In New York, a state with strict gun laws, only about a quarter of the recovered weapons originated there.

This appears to have been what happened in California, too. Legislators there banned the weapon used in Sunday’s killings, only to have the rifle cross the border with Nevada and make its way into the Garlic Festival.

In 2017, more than 1,500 other weapons made a similar journey from the Silver State.