WASHINGTON (AP) — The most comprehensive federal report on guns and crime in more than two decades shows an ever-shortening delay between when a gun was purchased and when it was picked up on a crime scene, indicating that legally purchased firearms are more quickly used in crimes around the country.
It also documents a spike in the use of conversion devices that fire a semi-automatic weapon like a machine gun, as well as the growing seizure of so-called phantom weapons, hard-to-trace privately-made firearms.
The report comes as the country grapples with an increase in violence crime, especially with firearms.
Much of the data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives report was not previously widely available, and its release aims to help police and policy makers reduce gun violence, Director Steve Dettelbach said. “Information is power,” he said.
The report shows that 54% of firearms police recovered from crime scenes in 2021 were purchased within three years, a double-digit increase since 2019. The faster turnaround time may indicate illegal trafficking firearms or straw purchase – when someone who can legally buy a firearm buys one to resell to someone who cannot legally own firearms. The increase is largely due to weapons purchased less than a year ago, he said.
The number of new firearms in the United States increased dramatically during this time as gun sales hit records during the coronavirus pandemic.
Most firearms used in crimes have changed hands since they were purchased, the report said. He also uncovered what Assistant Attorney General Lisa Monaco called an epidemic of stolen firearms: more than 1.07 million firearms were stolen between 2017 and 2021. Almost all of those , 96%, were privately owned.
Meanwhile, the report also documents a more than five-fold increase in the number of devices that convert a legal semi-automatic weapon into an illegal fully automatic weapon. Between 2012 and 2016, the ATF recovered 814, but that number rose to 5,414 over the five-year period documented in the report.
A conversion device was used in a mass shooting which left six dead and 12 injured in Sacramento last April in what officers described as a shootout between rival gangs.
The document also traces the rise of “ghosts”privately-made firearms without serial numbers that are increasingly showing up at crime scenes across the country.
The ATF traced more than 19,000 privately-made firearms in 2021, more than double the previous year. This jump was the result of part of the agency encouraging police to send the guns to them so they could be found, even though they generally didn’t provide as much information as typical firearms. Weapons have unique ballistics and other characteristics that may be useful to investigators.
The report came after Attorney General Merrick Garland asked the ATF to produce the first in-depth study into criminal gun trafficking in more than 20 years.