Traffickers exploit state laws to move guns

BROWN (US) — Gun traffickers take advantage of the differences in firearm laws by moving illegal guns from states with weak laws into states with stricter ones, a new study shows.

For a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, researchers used gun tracing data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives to identify the source for crime guns recovered in each of the 50 states and then constructed an import-export matrix to measure the state-to-state gun trafficking flow.

Each state was then classified on a scale of weak-to-stringent gun regulation using 10 laws deemed significant in terms of reducing trafficking by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, including legislation on straw purchasing, background checks, and required reporting of lost or stolen guns.


The paper’s main findings include:

  • Trafficking flows respond to gun regulations, with guns flowing from states with weak gun laws into nearby states with strict laws.
  • Proximity matters: Trafficking flows are more significant between two nearby states than between two distant states. A weakening of gun laws has a more significant effect in nearby states.
  • The fraction of crimes involving a gun tends to be higher in states exposed to weak gun laws.

A specific example of these spillover effects, or externalities, demonstrated in the analysis is the illegal gun flow into New York, a state with stringent gun laws. The largest firearm importers to New York are Florida, Georgia, and Virginia—three states in relatively close proximity that have relatively weak gun laws.

The greatest flow of guns is from Indiana to Illinois, with more than 1,000 guns recovered in Illinois in 2009 that originated in Indiana. “Presumably, that’s because Indiana has relatively weak gun laws and is right on the border of Chicago,” says Brown University economist Brian Knight.

“This analysis suggests there would be benefits associated with having more federal control over gun policy, particularly because the federal government is going to better internalize these types of cross-state spillovers.

“On the other hand, there would be a cost of further federal interventions, as a key advantage of decentralization involves the ability of states to tailor policies according to local preferences.”

More news from Brown University: