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Crime Guns: Insights from the ATF 2023 NFCTA Report

The ATF released a comprehensive report on guns used in crimes from 2017 to 2021. We analyzed the data to find what types of guns and calibers are most used.

    For the first time in over two decades, the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has released a comprehensive study of commerce in firearms in the United States and the diversion of firearms to illegal markets.

    Best Duty Weapons

    Using data from 2017 to 2021, the National Firearms Commerce and Trafficking Assessment (NFCTA) examines “firearms specifically associated with criminal acts,” according to the report, including information such as how many guns were recovered in the U.S., what states recovered the most guns, and what types of guns were recovered.

    National Firearms Commerce and Trafficking Assessment

    The NFCTA is being produced in four volumes.

    The first volume was published in May 2022 and presented data, information, and analysis specific to the manufacture, import, export, and sale of firearms by the regulated firearms industry in the United States, according to the report.

    Faxon Firearms Ascent ARs
    Faxon Firearms Ascent ARs

    The second volume, “Crime Guns,” was published in February and focuses on guns recovered by law enforcement during domestic and international investigations.

    “It is our goal that the analysis in Volume II will yield important strategic intelligence for policy makers, law enforcement leaders and researchers considering new policies and programs to reduce gun violence,” ATF Director Steven Dettelbach said in the report.

    President Joe Biden listens after announcing his nomination of Steve Dettelbach to serve as director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives during an event at the White House in Washington D.C., April 11, 2022. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

    “The unprecedented data in this volume does not answer all questions, and in fact raises additional questions which require more study.”

    Indeed, multiple gun rights organizations indicated they have some concerns, including that it could be given more weight or significance than it deserves or that people could draw unwarranted conclusions from it.

    Beretta A300 Ultima Patrol_08
    Beretta A300 Ultima Patrol

    “Our concern with trace data is that gun ban advocates in and outside of government will try to abuse it to make assertions about ‘crime guns’ or ‘bad apple gun dealers’ that misrepresent what can reasonably or accurately be gleaned from the data, including in litigation by the gun control lobby,” said Amy Hunter, director of media relations at National Rifle Association.

    “Used haphazardly or politically, and without a healthy understanding and appreciation of its limitations, trace data could fog the issue rather than illuminate.”

    Ruger Max 9 left
    Ruger Max 9

    “Law enforcement agencies may request firearms traces for any investigative reason, and those reasons are not necessarily reported to the federal government. Not all firearms used in crime are traced and not all firearms traced are used in crime.”

    It goes on to say, “The firearms selected do not constitute a random sample and should not be considered representative of the larger universe of all firearms used by criminals, or any subset of that universe.”

    Trace Data

    In completing the NFCTA, the ATF relies on “trace data,” which helps identify the custody of a firearm through the supply chain, from manufacturer to dealer to buyer.

    Typically, when law enforcement officials recover a gun at a crime scene, they submit a trace request to the ATF’s National Tracing Center (NTC). This process identifies the weapon’s serial number, model, caliber, and manufacturer.

    Glock G17 Gen 4
    Glock G17 Gen 4 — note the serial number on the slide.

    When the NTC receives a trace request, the organization uses the firearm’s markings and other records to trace it through its chain of custody.

    As part of this process, the NTC interacts with federal, state, local, territorial, tribal, and international law enforcement agencies (LEAs), as well as with federal firearms licensees (FFLs).  

    “As such, crime gun tracing is inherently dependent upon the completeness and accuracy of FFL records,” the report reads.

    “If requesting LEAs submit inaccurate or incomplete requests, such as an inadequate firearm description, this will result in unsuccessful traces and reduce strategic and actionable intelligence development.”

    Gun Trace Requests

    The NFCTA indicates that law enforcement agencies submitted a total of 1,922,5771 crime guns to ATF for tracing between 2017 and 2021.

    Of the 1.92 million crime guns submitted, only 1% (27,156) was deemed an “urgent trace” involving significant crimes, such as mass shootings, homicides, and bank robberies.

    The total number of annual crime gun trace requests increased by 36% from 2017 (337,903) to 2021 (404,024), according to the report.

    The largest single-year increase occurred when the number of crime gun trace requests rose by 14% from 2020 (404,518) to 2021 (460,024), during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Total Number of Crime Gun Trace Requests 2017-2021 - 2

    Not surprisingly, California had the highest number of crime gun traces between 2017 and 2021 (231,784). The Golden State was followed by Texas (177,786) and Florida (134,601).

    Rounding out the top five were North Carolina (90,225) and Illinois (90,014).

    Total Number of Crime Gun Trace Requests 2017-2021 - 3
    The states responsible for the most crime gun traces from 2017 to 2021.

    Most Commonly Traced Guns

    Pistols were the most frequently traced crime gun, accounting for 68% (1,306,804). Rifles accounted for 12.4% (237,532), revolvers 11% (211,590), and shotguns 7% (133,024).

    Total Number of Crime Gun Trace Requests 2017-2021 - 1
    Pistols were the most frequently traced guns, with rifles and revolvers following.

    Moreover, the percentage of traced pistols increased by 12% from 2017 to 2021, while the percentage of revolvers, rifles, and shotguns among traced crime guns all declined over the same period, according to the report.


    In addition, the report details the calibers of traced crime guns and indicates there were 1,306,804 pistol-type crime guns traced between 2017 and 2021.

    Nearly 50% (647,014) were 9mm, followed by .40 caliber (17%; 219,112), .380 (12%; 151,105), and .45 10% (128,049).

    Popular Pistol Calibers
    Popular Pistol Calibers

    5.56mm pistols only accounted for 6,940 (0.5%) of the pistols traced.

    Benjamin Hyun Sanderson, a legislative policy assistant with Gun Owners of America, said this data point illustrates the government’s wrongheaded approach to gun control.  

    “The Biden administration saying that 5.56mm pistols are dangerous weapons that need to be taken off the streets is insane because the numbers don’t back that up at all,” he said. “It’s simply a way for the ATF and the Biden administration to criminalize up to 40 million people.”

    Aero AR-15 10.5" Pistol
    Aero AR-15 10.5″ Pistol


    Sanderson also points to tracing numbers associated with rifles.

    The NFCTA indicates that there were 237,532 rifle-type crime guns traced between 2017 and 2021.

    Among the top 10, .22 caliber accounted for 30% (70,872), 5.56mm accounted for 13% (31,406), and 7.62mm accounted for 9% (27,930).

    5.56 vs .22LR
    5.56 (left) and .22 LR (right).

    “Rifles are rarely used in crimes,” Sanderson said. “They’re not some gangster weapon. Instead, a lot of them are being used for lawful purposes.”


    In looking at other data, the report indicates there were 211,590 revolver-type crime guns traced between 2017 and 2021.

    45 Colt Revolvers and Ammo

    The .38 caliber (41%), .22 caliber (23%), and .357 (19%) accounted for 83% (173,760) of all revolver-type crime guns.


    And finally, 133,024 shotgun-type crime guns were traced between 2017 and 2021.

    Types of 12ga Shotgun Shells (L to R: Bird, Buck, Slug)
    Types of 12-gauge Shotgun Shells (L to R: Bird, Buck, Slug)

    The 12-gauge (76%), .20-gauge (13%), and .410 (6%) accounted for more than 95% (126,651) of all shotgun-type crime guns.


    Part of the NFCTA’s conclusion indicates that “Ongoing comprehensive data collection and analysis of recovered traced crime guns are necessary to understand both persistent and emergent flows of crime guns into local underground crime gun markets.”

    Bunch of Micro Guns and Red Dots

    Sanderson contends the NFCTA illustrates ATF overreach and that there are serious limitations to the report’s data, including the fact that some 26,000 firearms are untraceable because law enforcement officers purchased them.

    “That’s an insane number,” he said. “This really isn’t about gun safety. This is simply a way to register all the firearms available. And what comes after registration is confiscation. It makes it a lot harder for citizens to feel safe if they know that the government has all this information. And that’s what the Second Amendment is about — fighting off government tyranny.”  

    What are your thoughts? Share them in the comments below. Want to dig into some more data? Check out our News category for the latest in the gun world.

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    4 Leave a Reply

    • Commenter Avatar

      A large portion of my professional healthcare career focused on large data set analysis in support of rational and effective decision making to improve clinical outcomes. On the face of it, there are significant limitations to this NFCTA data set: lack of standard reporting mechanisms, classification exceptions, and insufficient data capture to drive analysis validity. While it might become useful in addressing illegal trafficking of guns, it is too early for this data set to be a meaningful tool to address data-based actions addressing criminal use of firearms. I do see a high potential for premature policy decisions that will have markedly serious unintended consequences for citizens not engaged in criminal activity while legally owning firearms.

      April 26, 2023 6:18 pm
    • Commenter Avatar
      Fal Phil

      I think it is important to note that while the correlation is high, a good percentage of trace requests are not correlated with crime. In some departments, SOP is that a trace request is ordered for every firearm the department obtains possession of, regardless of whether the firearm was associated with a crime.

      April 26, 2023 8:34 am
    • Commenter Avatar

      Do they compare the type of crime with the class of weapon used? Rifles are used in a few crimes but one can argue they have the potential to kill more people. (E.g. Las Vegas).

      April 26, 2023 7:46 am
    • Commenter Avatar

      Fascinating analysis. As an NYC resident, I’d sure love more data before going back to my one range

      April 25, 2023 9:43 pm
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