After the U.S. murder total soared to more than 21,000 in 2020, researchers began searching for a definitive explanation why. Many factors may have contributed, such as a pandemic-driven loss of social programs and and policing changes after George Floyd’s murder. One hypothesis is simpler: a massive increase in gun sales in early 2020 led to additional murders, write Jeff Asher and Rob Arthur in The Atlantic. New data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) suggest that newly purchased weapons found their way into crimes much more quickly and often in 2020 than in earlier years. That seems to point to a definitive conclusion—new guns led to more murders—but the data set cannot prove that yet.
The ATF data result from tracing nearly 400,000 firearms in 2020. Not all guns recovered by law enforcement are traced, and many guns used in crimes are never recovered by law enforcement. Still, the ATF’s data are the most robust source available for evaluating the increased use of firearms in 2020. Asher and Arthur say that what is most startling in these new data is the degree to which firearms purchased in 2020 featured in crimes committed that same year. The ATF’s data set includes a measure known as the “time to crime” of each gun traced—the time from when a firearm was legally purchased to when it was recovered after a crime. An enormous shift is apparent: The number of traced guns whose time to crime was a year or more increased by under one percent in 2020 compared with 2019, but the number of guns whose time to crime was six months or less increased by 90 percent. More guns were recovered in 2020 than in 2019 across a host of crimes. “You do see these guns ending up in risky situations more quickly than in the past,” says criminologist Aaron Chalfin of the University of Pennsylvania.