Police at the scene after two NYPD officers were shot in Harlem on January 21, 2022. The gun used to kill the officers was stolen in Baltimore five years ago, according to authorities.
CNN  — 

Earlier this month, two NYPD officers were killed while responding to a domestic disturbance call. According to authorities, the suspect used a Glock 45 that was stolen in Baltimore in 2017, prompting city and state officials to call for stronger measures against gun violence and gun trafficking across state lines. The tragedy highlighted a growing concern about the seeming flood of firearms across America.

Law enforcement agencies in some of the country’s biggest cities seized or recovered near decade-high numbers of firearms in 2021, according to data provided to CNN. Many police departments also reported recovering high numbers of “ghost guns” — untracked and untraceable firearms that are often bought online and assembled at home.

“We have to stop the flow of guns,” said New York City Mayor Eric Adams in a press conference on January 24. “We are removing thousands of guns off our streets, and it appears as though for every gun we remove from the street, five are coming in. That is unacceptable.”

In New York, police made 4,497 gun arrests in 2021, up 3% from 2020 but a 26% rise from 2019. Adams said in the press conference that police had recovered more than 6,000 guns in the city last year.

The high volume of guns recovered comes as the country has seen a surge of gun violence since the onset of the pandemic. A CNN analysis showed that more than two-thirds of the country’s most populous cities recorded more homicides in 2021 than the previous year, with at least 10 setting all-time homicide records – with the majority committed with a firearm.

CNN requested data on gun seizures and recoveries from police departments in over a dozen of America’s largest cities. Of the eight cities that responded with data through the end of 2021, all recorded more gun recoveries last year than in 2020, with several reaching highs not seen in at least a decade. Not all cities distinguished between guns recovered from crime scenes and those recovered from voluntary efforts, such as a gun buyback program, but the increases are indicative of growing numbers of firearms in America.

In Philadelphia, for example, police last year recovered 5,920 crime guns — a gun used or suspected of being used in a crime — the highest in at least a decade.

The Chicago Police Department (CPD) recovered more than 12,000 guns in 2021, up from 11,397 in 2020, including guns recovered through buyback programs and other voluntary means. Notably, last year’s total includes at least 706 assault weapons, which the CPD said was 62% higher than the number recovered in 2020. 

Ghost guns are on the rise

Experts say that increasing numbers of firearms and the difficulty tracking the true scope of both legally and illegally owned guns make it challenging to address gun violence effectively. Here’s what we know, and don’t know, about guns in the United States — and how better data could provide a key to understanding and reducing violent crime.

Law enforcement officials and gun violence prevention groups have sounded the alarm on the fast-growing threat of unregulated ghost guns. There is no background check required to purchase the parts needed to assemble a firearm at home, which can be done in less than an hour, and often at a low cost.

Data shows that these guns have been involved in shootings and found at crime scenes with increasing frequency. Several cities have reported sharp increases in the number of ghost guns recovered over time – and while they make up a relatively small percentage of the total number of guns recovered by law enforcement, that share is growing. Police in San Francisco seized 1,089 guns in 2021, about 20% of which were ghost guns. Just five years prior in 2016, ghost guns made up less than 1% of total gun seizures. Similar steep increases are apparent in other cities. Baltimore reported 352 ghost guns seized last year, with Washington, DC reporting more than 400 in 2021, up from 25 in 2018.

Raj Vaswani, acting deputy chief of investigations for the San Francisco police, said the ghost guns officers have encountered are often more dangerous than typical firearms recovered by the department. The SFPD also reported that nearly half of the firearms recovered in homicide cases in 2020 were ghost guns.

“The ghost guns that we do see are generally really high capacity,” he told CNN. “I’m talking about 100-round drums, really large capacity magazines.”

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) currently cannot trace most ghost guns because certain frames and receivers — two key components that make the firearm work — purchased online are not classified as firearms by the bureau.

Following a 2021 directive from the Biden administration, however, the bureau proposed a rule in May that would allow the ATF to classify the building blocks that often make up ghost guns as firearms. This would require many dealers selling component parts to mark them with serial numbers, and the dealers would need to be federally licensed. When buying from these sellers, purchasers would need to pass a background check before buying a ghost gun.

It’s the first significant step federal lawmakers have put forth to combat the increase in ghost gun production – but the rule has yet to take effect. John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, called the rule “muscular” in its scope but stressed the need for speedy implementation. 

“Every day that goes by that it’s not [implemented], more people are killed. It’s a pretty simple equation. Delay equals death,” he said. Everytown for Gun Safety is a nonprofit that advocates for gun control.

High demand for firearms

It’s impossible to get the full picture of how many guns have been purchased legally – let alone illegally – because of decades of successful lobbying for the privacy of gun owners. The FBI tracks pre-sale background checks, but there is no federal database of gun sales or ownership. Under the 2003 Tiahrt Amendment, the agency is required by law to destroy approved gun purchaser records within 24 hours after approval. 

While background checks do not directly translate to gun sales, the data can serve as a window into the country’s interest in gun purchases. The number of background checks jumped during the first few months of the pandemic and has been high ever since.

But it’s harder to draw a clear line between increased legal gun sales and guns recovered from crime scenes, said Adam Winkler, a professor at UCLA School of Law who specializes in constitutional law and gun policy.

“We shouldn’t necessarily expect a tight connection between the number of background checks and the number of guns that are found at crime scenes,” Winkler told CNN. “Many criminals do not buy their guns at gun stores.”

Gun advocacy groups and criminology experts have pointed to the uncertainty of the pandemic as a key driver for firearm sales. The National Shooting Sports Foundation, a firearms industry trade group, estimated that 40% of gun buyers in 2020 were first-time buyers. 

“It does seem like the pandemic has led to increasing desire for people to have firearms,” Winkler said. “The pandemic caused a major disruption in people’s lives. And when people’s lives are disrupted, they look for those things that can provide them security.”

Thomas Chittum, acting deputy director of the ATF, said the “vast majority” of legally purchased guns will never be used to commit a crime. But more guns in stores and in the home brings its own set of inherent risks. 

Chittum says that part of the agency’s job includes outreach to gun stores to emphasize the importance of proper gun safety and storage in a climate of increased demand, especially among first-time buyers.

“The more guns that are there and not really stored properly, the more that might be stolen. And we know that stolen firearms are a source of crime guns – a significant source,” he said.

Winkler also cautioned against correlating firearms in the home with increased safety. 

“The gun lobby has for years been trying to persuade you that an important part of your security is having a firearm in your home, but the data doesn’t really support that idea,” he said. “The data shows that having a gun in your home actually makes you more at risk of being a victim of gun violence than it protects you.”

Accelerating ‘time to crime’

The most comprehensive source that tracks crime guns is the ATF’s yearly Trace Data, which attempts to trace a gun to its original retail sale point. Because of restrictions in the Tiahrt Amendment, the ATF cannot publish detailed tracing data, and many gun purchase records are kept in paper format.  

The aggregated data the ATF publishes, however, still provides insight into crime guns in the United States. One of the metrics it tracks is the “time to crime” – the time between when a gun is legally purchased to when it’s used to commit a crime. Its 2020 firearms trace report, published this January, found that the average time to crime dropped from eight years in 2019 to seven in 2020.

Alarmingly, the percent of traces where the time to crime was under one year increased sharply over the past few years, from 16% in 2015 to 29% in 2020. 

The ATF said in a statement to CNN that “firearms with a short Time-to-Crime have the most immediate investigative potential for law enforcement officials because they are likely to have changed hands less frequently from the time of the original purchase until recovery by law enforcement.”

The states with the highest time to crime on average were those with stricter gun laws, like California, Hawaii and New Jersey.

“The most noteworthy thing is a lot more guns were recovered generally – and a lot more guns recovered that were recently sold,” said Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Prevention and Policy. The number of guns the ATF traced rose from about 217,000 in 2015 to just over 393,000 in 2020.

“To me, I think it sort of reflects a very basic thing, which is more guns, more gun crime,” he said.

Lack of data 

The data comes with large caveats. The ATF calculates time to crime based on the gun’s original point of purchase, which means transactions can be missed. For example: If someone sells a gun they legally purchased 10 years ago to a pawn shop, the pawn shop could resell the gun to someone who then uses it to commit a crime six months later. That gun’s time to crime would be recorded as 10 years rather than six months, as the pawn store would not be required to report the sale to the ATF. 

The ATF noted to CNN that the time to crime metric has declined steadily over the past several years, and that while there was “no single factor” they could point to for the decrease, they mentioned the “the continual expansion” of their tracing system, as well as improved data collection to close gaps in missed transactions, as potential factors.

Law enforcement agencies in many states are not required to submit recovered firearms to the ATF for tracing, though Chittum says the agency has “put a lot of effort into educating state and local agencies about the value of comprehensive tracing.” 

Even if recovered firearms are reported, not every gun can be traced. A report from the New York Attorney General’s office, which analyzed traced guns in the state from 2010 to 2015, described the process as “time consuming and prone to failure.” Of the 52,915 records the report analyzed, the ATF was “unable to obtain any state of origin for 12% of traces and a date of retail purchase for approximately 42% of traces.”

Data about gun trafficking – the term for when a gun is moved from a legal to illegal commerce stream – is also severely limited. The four most common forms of trafficking are gun thefts, straw sales, purchases on the unregulated secondary market and ghost guns. 

The US government has not conducted a comprehensive study on sources of gun trafficking since 2000. Last April, the Biden administration directed the Justice Department to publish a new report that would be updated annually, but it has not yet been released. 

Rising gun violence highlights need for action

As law enforcement officials grapple with a lack of comprehensive data and an increase in hard to trace firearms, gun homicides and assaults have risen steadily since 2020.

In its latest UCR report, the FBI stated that the number of homicides in 2020 increased almost 30% from 2019, the largest single-year increase the agency recorded since it began tracking these crimes in the 1960s. About 77% of reported murders in 2020 were committed with a gun, up from 74% in 2019. 

Amid escalating gun violence, a Supreme Court decision this term could significantly upend decades of gun restrictions in major cities. In November, the court appeared ready to expand Second Amendment rights as justices expressed skepticism over an existing New York law that prohibits people from carrying concealed handguns in public. If the law is overturned in New York, gun advocacy groups and researchers argue that the ruling could have a ripple effect across the US.

According to a recent study by Everytown for Gun Safety, one of those effects could be more firearm deaths. The study found a strong correlation between states that have looser gun laws and higher rates of gun deaths.

Without robust data collection on traced crime guns or gun ownership, and any lack of enacted rules about ghost guns, Everytown’s Feinblatt said law enforcement officers are limited in what they can do to effectively reduce gun violence.

“When you can’t publish data about who are the bad apple sellers? That’s fighting with one hand behind your back. When you can’t publicize trace data and when the government isn’t finalizing the rule on ghost guns? That’s fighting with one hand behind your back,” he told CNN. 

Vaswani with the San Francisco police stressed the impact that rising gun violence has on the families and communities, pointing to the shooting deaths of a toddler in Oakland last year and a 6-year-old in San Francisco in 2020, both killed by stray gunfire.

“The byproduct of this is our neighborhoods, our kids, innocent people that get caught in gun violence that have nothing to do with it,” he said. “They’re just at the wrong place at the wrong time.”