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 like 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 which 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 in which it 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 are 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 is the number of firearms recovered which 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 which 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 in 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 make up more of the population than they do the states of origin of the firearms traced in 2019. But states like California and New York, the other two of the top 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 which have relatively small populations were disproportionately the source of guns recovered in other states. Any state above the dotted line above is a state in which the state 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 of the total come from out-of-state. Of every six guns recovered in the state, one came from Indiana, which is a short drive from Chicago itself.
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 the 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., for example, only 4.6 percent of the recovered weapons were traced back to the District. In New Jersey, it was about one in five.
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 like 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.
America’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 is why 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 show that stricter gun laws do precisely what you’d expect: They make it harder to obtain a firearm. But hard is not impossible.