The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) this week released the first sweeping federal report on gun crime in two decades.
The report found that the time between when a gun was purchased and when it was recovered from a crime scene had reduced significantly over the past 20 years, suggesting that guns purchased legally are more quickly being used in crimes.
According to the report, 54% of guns that police recovered at crime scenes in 2021 had been purchased within three years, a double-digit increase since 2019. ATF said the quicker turnaround may indicate illegal gun trafficking or a straw purchase—when someone legally purchases a gun then sells it to someone who’s ineligible to buy one legally. That increase, according to ATF, was driven largely by guns bought less than a year before they were recovered from crime scenes.
The report also found a spike in the use of conversion devices that make a semiautomatic rifle fire like a machine gun—despite a 2018 federal ban on so-called “bump stocks.” Between 2012 and 2016, the ATF retrieved 814 of such converted weapons, but that number jumped to 5,414 between 2017 and 2021.
That increase was accompanied by a growing seizure of so-called “ghost guns,” which are privately made firearms that are difficult to trace as they don’t have serial numbers on them. The ATF traced more than 19,000 privately-made firearms in 2021, more than double the year before.
The number of new guns across the U.S. grew significantly during this time period, with a shattering of sales records during the Covid pandemic. According to the gun rights organization National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), the year 2022 saw 16.4 million queries run through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) that were related to firearms.
Just this week, meanwhile, gun control advocates were dealt a legal blow when a federal judge temporarily blocked a New Jersey law that would allow the state’s Attorney General to sue gun sellers and manufacturers if their practices endanger public safety. According to U.S. District Judge Zahid Nisar Quraishi, the New Jersey law appeared to be at odds with the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act of 2005 which shields the gun industry from lawsuits when their products are used in the commission of a crime.
His decision, however, appears to contradict a ruling last year by U.S. District Judge Mae D’Agostino, who tossed out a lawsuit from the gun industry challenging a law in New York similar to New Jersey’s legislation.