The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A key gun-violence loophole: It’s easy for guns to cross state borders

Wes Morosky, left, owner of Duke's Sport Shop in New Castle, Pa., helps a customer in 2018. (Keith Srakocic/AP)

Whenever the subject of gun violence becomes the focus of political discourse in the United States, predictable bits of rhetoric emerge. One is that Democrats’ focus on the issue is inconsistent or hypocritical, given the left’s determined focus on mass shootings — which kill very few people — and its more muted response to everyday gun violence — which kills far more — in largely Democratic areas.

To an extent, the criticism is fair. What has spurred national attention isn’t the increase in gun homicides in many places over the past year but, instead, incidents such as the killing of 10 people in a grocery store in Boulder, Colo., on Monday.

Where things get wobbly, though, is when gun violence in Democratic cities is used to argue against the utility of restricting gun ownership. Discussion of homicides in Chicago, for example, are not infrequently coupled with a mention that Illinois has relatively tough gun laws. If Illinois makes it so hard to buy a gun, the argument goes, but Chicago still has all this gun violence, what’s the point in having those laws?

There are many ways to answer the question, but one in particular effectively undercuts the premise: Many of the guns used in Illinois didn’t come from Illinois.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has a program that traces firearms seized by law enforcement across the country. Each year, it publishes reports showing the results of those traces, including incidents in which firearms from one state were traced back to a sale in another state.

In 2019, for example, the most recent year for which data is available, there were about 270,000 firearms traced by ATF. Of those, more than 75,000 originated in a state other than the one in which the weapon was recovered.

We can actually map the movement of those firearms. In broad strokes, it looks like this.

The thickness of each line indicates the number of weapons moving between states. The gray loops adjoining each state represent the number of recovered firearms that originated in the state itself.

It’s confusing, obviously, with the direction and scale of flow unclear. If we look at it another way, things get a little sharper. Here, for example, is the flow of firearms as a percentage of the number of weapons seized.

What jumps out here is one particular flow: firearms recovered in Puerto Rico and other territories that originated in Florida. More than 42 percent of the weapons traced by ATF in 2019 from the territories were first purchased in Florida.

That’s not uncommon. Florida was among the top 10 source states for 46 of the 52 regions included in the analysis above. The only state that was more commonly a top-10 source of firearms was Texas.

In the abstract, that seems unremarkable. Florida and Texas are big states with lots of people. They’re often at the top of lists of common occurrences simply by virtue of scale. But while that is part of it, it’s not all of what’s happening. Texas and Florida’s share of the U.S. population is greater than their share of firearms recovered in other states in 2019. But states such as California and New York, the other two of four most populous states, were far less often the source of traced firearms.

Why? Certainly in part because they have stricter laws governing the purchase of guns.

A number of states that have relatively small populations were disproportionately the source of guns recovered in other states. Any state above the dotted line above is a state that was the source of a higher percentage of recovered firearms than it is of the population. At the top are Georgia, followed by Virginia, Arizona and Indiana.

Those last three states are interesting because they all abut regions with strong gun-control laws and large populations: Southern California, D.C. and Chicago.

Sure enough, if we look at the source of firearms recovered in Illinois, we find that half came from out of state. Of every six guns recovered in the state, one came from Indiana, which is a short drive from Chicago.

That weapons recovered in Illinois were as likely to have come from out of state as not is unusual. On average, about two-thirds of the firearms recovered in a state and traced by ATF originated in that state. Illinois’s 50 percent is well beneath that.

Other states with tough gun laws saw an even lower percentage of the total originate in-state. In D.C., only 4.6 percent of the recovered weapons were traced to the District. In New Jersey, it was about 1 in 5.

That’s similar to the percentage recovered in New York. There, only 21 percent of the recovered weapons originated in the state. The rest came from elsewhere — and generally not from a nearby state such as Connecticut, which has strict gun laws. More than 40 percent of the traced firearms recovered in New York came from the Carolinas, Virginia, Georgia or Florida.

The U.S. system allows states to develop their own laws. But the system is also porous, and it’s often trivial to transport something that’s legal in one state (like marijuana or fireworks) into another state.

It’s not the case that out-of-state firearms are the reason Chicago has a gun-violence issue. But it is the case that the firearms used in the city disproportionately come from outside Illinois. According to a study undertaken by the city in 2016, 60 percent of the firearms recovered in Chicago came from out of state, largely Indiana.

If anything, the ATF data shows that stricter gun laws do precisely what you’d expect: They make it harder to obtain a firearm. But hard is not impossible.