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Department of Justice

Office of Public Affairs
For Immediate Release
Thursday, April 4, 2024

Justice Department Announces Publication of Third Volume of National Firearms Commerce and Trafficking Assessment

Report Presents First Comprehensive Analysis of Firearms Trafficking in Over 20 Years

The Justice Department today announced the publication of Firearm Trafficking Investigations, the third volume of the National Firearms Commerce and Trafficking Assessment (NFCTA), a four-part, comprehensive examination of commerce in firearms and the diversion of firearms to illegal markets. This Volume incorporates input from the most comprehensive national survey of the special agents who conduct Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) trafficking investigations to provide the first in-depth analysis of firearm trafficking investigations in more than two decades. This report examines 9,708 closed ATF firearm trafficking investigations initiated between CY 2017 and 2021. In April 2021, Attorney General Garland directed the ATF to undertake its first comprehensive study of criminal gun trafficking, the intentional movement of one or more firearms into the illegal market for a criminal purpose or possession.

“This report makes clear that black-market guns sold by unlicensed dealers without a background check are increasingly being found at crime scenes,” said Attorney General Merrick B. Garland. “Under the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, the Justice Department has proposed a new rule to clarify when gun dealers must get licenses and conduct background checks. The Department is also vigorously enforcing the new provisions Congress passed in the Act to prohibit illegal gun trafficking and straw purchasing. This report reminds us of the urgency of our work, and I am grateful to the extraordinary professionals of the ATF who put their lives on the line to help keep our communities safe, and whose tireless work is responsible for the most comprehensive look at America’s crime gun data in over two decades.”

“Thanks to the hard work of ATF, we now have fresh data and cutting-edge insights on the key drivers of illegal firearms trafficking,” said Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco. “Among other trends, the report shows the high frequency of traffickers selling firearms without a license to evade federal law, and the widespread impact of straw purchasers concealing the true recipients of illegally diverted firearms. This report will help agents and prosecutors target investigations, prosecute offenders, and reduce gun violence.”

“This is the most comprehensive survey ever of ATF’s thousands of expert gun trafficking agents to learn about the cases they do,” said ATF Director Steven Dettelbach. “Americans need this data to understand this threat and to better address it.  One striking finding from the data is that individuals illegally engaged in the business of unlicensed firearms dealing are contributing more and more to the flow of firearms into the black market, where we know that felons, gang members, and other violent offenders often get their guns. I want to be crystal clear – illegal firearms trafficking is not a victimless crime. You can’t illegally help to arm violent people and not be responsible for the violence that follows. We fight this public safety battle every day at ATF, as the thousands of ATF cases analyzed in this volume demonstrate. I commend the men and women of ATF and our truly wonderful partners for producing this important study, and also for risking everything to pursue these cases every single day.”

One of the key data-points identified in the analysis is the increased use of intelligence to initiate trafficking investigations. The use of Crime Gun Intelligence Center (CGIC) referrals increased nearly 20% from 2017 to 2021, while the use of Confidential Informants to initiative cases dropped nine percent during that time. This data underscores the value of CGICs, which are law enforcement hubs that focus exclusively on investigating and preventing gun violence in local communities. They bring together, under one roof, the expertise of state and federal investigators, firearms evidence examiners, and intelligence analysts to rapidly collect, analyze, and share information and leads about guns used in violent crimes and to take action to disrupt and dismantle firearm trafficking. ATF operates and supports more than 60 CGICs nationwide.

Another key data point demonstrates the shift in the types of supply lines, or trafficking channels, used to move firearms out of lawful commerce into the illegal market over the past two decades. Investigations involving corrupt federal firearms licensees (FFLs) decreased over the study period with the most frequent channels identified now being illegal, unlicensed firearm dealing by private persons and straw purchasing, which is when someone buys a gun for someone who is prohibited.

The report also identified source-to-market type trends. For instance, 56% of the cases examined involved intrastate trafficking, while 32% involved interstate trafficking. Intrastate trafficking was most prevalent in all regions except the northeast, where interstate trafficking was most prevalent. This reinforces the findings from Volume II, which confirmed that although most — 72% nationally — traced crime guns are recovered in the same state in which they were acquired from an FFL, certain states and cities are targets for firearm traffickers. The cross-jurisdictional nature of this issue — guns purchased in one state and trafficked to another where they’re used in crime — is what led the Attorney General to launch five firearms trafficking strike forces in July 2021.

Additional key findings from the study period include:

  • The three most frequently identified violations of federal law in the investigations analyzed during this study included: (1) dealing in firearms without a license, (2) providing false information to an FFL, which is associated with straw purchasing, and (3) possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.
  • Firearms trafficked through unlicensed dealers were used in shootings in 368 cases.
  • Trafficked firearms were used in homicides in 265 cases, attempted homicide in 222 cases, and aggravated assaults in 446 cases.
  • Over half of the firearms trafficked were handguns (nearly 56%), with rifles following in second (nearly 19%).
  • The average number of firearms trafficked per case was 16.
  • In nearly 58% of the cases, five or fewer firearms were trafficked.
  • The majority of traffickers who directly or indirectly facilitated the movement of firearms to illegal markets were white (53%), male (84%), and U.S. citizens (95%).
  • The recipients or end users of the trafficked firearms tended to be previously convicted felons (60%) and young adults aged 25 to 34 (48%).
  • The annual percentage of juvenile (17 and under) end-users increased almost 10% between 2017 and 2021.

In February 2023, the Department issued Volume II of the NFCTA, Crime Gun Intelligence and Analysis, which presents and analyzes data on crime guns (firearms used in crime) recovered between 2017 and 2021. The analysis reinforces the critical importance of ATF’s unique crime gun tracing authority and highlights the value of data from ATF’s National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN) program.

In May 2022, the Department issued Volume I of the NFCTAFirearms in Commerce, which presents and analyzes data collected by ATF and other federal agencies related to the manufacture, exportation, and importation of firearms.

To produce the NFCTA, the ATF assembled a team of subject experts from ATF, as well as from academic and related fields. Although ATF issues a variety of public and law enforcement reports and bulletins regarding firearm commerce, trafficking, and related issues every year, it has not undertaken a joint academic study on the scale of the NFCTA in more than 20 years.

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