Feb 2, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Number of traced "ghost guns" doubled between 2020 and 2021, new report says

Police tape is seen near the scene of a deadly shooting

Police tape is seen near the scene of a deadly shooting on January 22 in Monterey Park, California. Photo: Qian Weizhong/VCG via Getty Images

The number of so-called suspected "ghost guns" traced and recovered by the federal government more than doubled in 2021 from the year before, according to a report published Wednesday by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

Why it matters: The increased tracing of ghost guns — also known as privately made firearms — reflects an increased awareness of ATF's tracing efforts as well as an uptick in the criminal use of ghost guns, per the report.

  • The report provides one of the most sweeping looks at guns and crime in the U.S. in more than two decades and comes as the nation once again reels from several high-profile acts of gun violence.
  • "It is my sincere hope that the publication of this unprecedented collection of data will help others to study firearms violence and will further ATF's mission of protecting American communities from violent crime," ATF Director Steve Dettelbach said in a foreword to the report.

State of play: Ghost gun owners buy and assemble their firearms piece by piece. The weapons don't have serial numbers, so law enforcement cannot trace them.

  • Law enforcement agencies recovered and submitted nearly 38,000 suspected ghost guns between 2017 and 2021.
  • 19,273 suspected ghost guns were recovered and traced in 2021, up from 8,504 in 2020.

The big picture: The report also reveals that 54% of guns recovered from crime scenes in 2021 had been purchased within the previous three years, up from 42% in 2019, an overall increase of 28% in the share of guns traced with such purchasing histories.

  • Between 2019 and 2021, there was also a 64% increase in guns that were recovered at crime scenes within one year of purchase.
  • Shorter turnaround between the time a gun is purchased and the time it is recovered at a crime scene can be an indicator of illegal firearm trafficking, per the report.
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