Laws limiting the number of firearms a person can purchase within a certain timeframe help reduce the number of guns that enter the secondary market—weapons that are more likely to wind up at the scene of a crime. Commonsense regulation of bulk gun purchases is an easy way to reduce gun trafficking and, in turn, gun violence.

Background

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Laws limiting the number of guns someone can buy within a short span of time helps reduce gun trafficking. Interstate trafficking of firearms flourishes, in part, because states regulate sales differently, and there is no federal limit on the number of guns an individual may purchase at any one time.1 States with weak gun laws attract traffickers who make multiple purchases, and then resell those firearms in states with stronger gun laws.2

Federal law defines a “multiple sale” as the sale of two or more guns to the same purchaser within five business days.3 Firearms sold in “multiple sales” are frequently used in crime. ATF studies of tracing data have shown that:

  • 22 percent of all handguns recovered in crime in 1999 were originally purchased as part of a multiple sale;4 and
  • 20 percent of all handguns recovered in crime in 2000 were originally purchased as part of a multiple sale.5

A study of the sale and subsequent criminal use of handguns sold in Maryland in the 1990s also revealed that handguns sold in multiple sales accounted for about a quarter of crime guns.6 In the same study, handguns sold in multiple sales were up to 64 percent more likely to be used in crime than handguns sold in single sales.7

A more recent report from ATF focused on long guns purchased in the U.S. and used in crimes in Mexico. That report found that purchases of multiple firearms by people not licensed as firearms dealers are a “significant indicator” of firearms trafficking.8 A case study of firearms trafficking by one cartel found that during a 15-month period, the cartel purchased 336 firearms, including 251 long guns, and all but one of those firearms was purchased from U.S. gun dealers as part of a multiple sale.9

Laws limiting multiple sales work. Virginia’s one-gun-a-month law—which was in effect from 1993 to 2012 and prohibited the purchase of more than one handgun per person in any 30-day period—significantly reduced the number of crime guns traced to Virginia dealers. Virginia initially adopted its law after the state became recognized as a primary source of crime guns recovered in states in the northeastern U.S. After the law’s adoption, the odds of tracing a gun originally acquired in the Southeast to a Virginia gun dealer (as opposed to a dealer in a different southeastern state) dropped by:

  • 71 percent for guns recovered in New York;
  • 72 percent for guns recovered in Massachusetts; and
  • 66 percent for guns recovered in New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts combined.10

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Americans support laws limiting the number of guns a person may purchase in a given time frame. An April 2012 poll found that 69 percent of respondents support these laws.11 A separate poll in spring 2008 found that 65 percent of Americans favor limiting the number of handguns a person may purchase to one per month.12

Summary of Federal Law

Federal law does not limit the number of guns a person may buy in any given time period. However, federal law does require federal firearm licensees (“FFLs”) to report multiple sales of handguns to ATF and other specified law enforcement agencies.13 This reporting requirement was created to enable law enforcement to “monitor and deter illegal interstate commerce in pistols and revolvers by unlicensed persons,”14 though there is no federal requirement that law enforcement actually investigate illegal trafficking.

In addition, because long guns have become Mexican cartels’ “weapons of choice,”15 in 2011 ATF began requiring FFLs in four states along the Mexican border (Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas) to report multiple sales of certain semiautomatic rifles.16 More specifically, the reporting requirement applies to semiautomatic rifles with a caliber greater than .22 and the ability to accept a detachable magazine.17 FFLs who are dealers or pawnbrokers must report to ATF whenever they sell or transfer two or more such weapons to the same person at one time or during any five consecutive business days.18

The federal reporting requirements have helped ATF combat gun trafficking. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, “multiple sales reports provide ATF with timely, actionable leads that can enable it to more quickly identify suspected firearms traffickers and disrupt their operations.”19 During the first eight months after the long gun reporting requirement went into effect for four states bordering Mexico, ATF used those reports to initiate 120 investigations and recommended prosecution of more than 100 defendants in 25 separate cases.20

Federal law falls short in several respects and does not go far enough to ensure that gun traffickers are effectively investigated and prosecuted. First, federal law fails to require law enforcement officers to investigate the multiple sales or purchases of firearms that are reported. Moreover, federal law actually prohibits state and local law enforcement agencies from disclosing reports of multiple sales (other than those involving prohibited purchasers) and requires those agencies to destroy such reports and related records within 20 days of receipt.21 States like California have closed this dangerous loophole by requiring gun sales to be reported to state or local law enforcement. For more information, see our summary on Maintaining Records of Gun Sales.

Summary of State Law

Three states (California, Maryland and New Jersey) have laws limiting handgun purchases or sales to one per month.22

California

California law prohibits anyone from purchasing more than one handgun within any 30-day period. In addition, a licensed firearms dealer may not deliver a handgun to any person after receiving a notification from the California Department of Justice that the purchaser has applied to acquire a handgun within the preceding 30-day period. Finally, firearms dealers must conspicuously post in their licensed premises a warning, in block letters at least one inch in height, notifying purchasers of these restrictions.23

Maryland

Maryland prohibits any person from purchasing more than one handgun or assault weapon within a 30-day period. Under limited circumstances, a person may be approved by the Secretary of the Maryland State Police to purchase multiple handguns or assault weapons in a 30-day period. Maryland also penalizes any dealer or other seller who knowingly participates in an illegal purchase of a handgun or assault weapon.24

New Jersey

New Jersey prohibits licensed firearms dealers from knowingly delivering more than one handgun to any person within any 30-day period. With limited exceptions, people may not purchase more than one handgun within any 30-day period.25

See our summary on Trafficking & Straw Purchases for additional laws to prevent gun trafficking.

Selected Local Law

New York City

State-level efforts (described above) to restrict multiple purchases and sales of firearms generally focus on handguns, and usually limit purchases and/or sales to one per month. New York City, however, takes a more comprehensive approach. The City limits all firearm purchases (not just handguns) to one handgun and one rifle or shotgun every 90 days.26 Before a sale can occur, the seller must check with the governmental authority that licensed the purchaser to make sure the purchaser has not bought another firearm within the previous 90 days. This restriction is a powerful disincentive to gun traffickers, who prefer to buy and transport multiple weapons at one time. By preventing bulk sales, the City has taken an important step toward thwarting the accumulation of weapons in the hands of criminals.

Key Legislative Elements

The features listed below are intended to provide a framework from which policy options may be considered. A jurisdiction considering new legislation should consult with counsel.

  • The restriction applies to both multiple purchases and sales of specified classes of weapons (California, Maryland, New Jersey)
  • The restriction on multiple sales applies to both licensed dealers and private sellers (Maryland)
  • A state agency maintains purchase information and must verify that the person has not purchased another weapon within the time period (California)
  • The restriction applies to all firearms (New York City) or at least handguns (California, Maryland, New Jersey), and also may apply to other classes of weapons such as assault weapons and 50 caliber rifles, if they are not otherwise banned (Maryland—assault weapons)
  • The most frequently used approach is to restrict multiple purchases or sales to no more than one per person per month (California, Maryland, New Jersey), but stricter limitations may be used (New York City limits purchases to one every 90 days)
Notes
  1. Douglas S. Weil & Rebecca C. Knox, Effects of Limiting Handgun Purchases on Interstate Transfer of Firearms, JAMA 1759, 1759-60 (1996). ⤴︎
  2. Id. ⤴︎
  3. 18 U.S.C. § 923(g)(3)(A). ⤴︎
  4. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, U.S. Department of the Treasury, Youth Crime Gun Interdiction Initiative, Crime Gun Trace Reports (1999) National Report 40 (Nov. 2000). ⤴︎
  5. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, U.S. Department of the Treasury, Youth Crime Gun Interdiction Initiative, Crime Gun Trace Reports (2000) National Report 50 (July 2002). ⤴︎
  6. Christopher S. Koper, Crime Gun Risk Factors: Buyer, Seller, Firearm, and Transaction Characteristics Associated with Gun Trafficking and Criminal Gun Use, Report to the National Institute of Justice 6, 83 (2007), at http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/221074.pdf. ⤴︎
  7. Id. ⤴︎
  8. U.S. Gov’t Accountability Office, Firearms Trafficking: U.S. Efforts to Combat Arms Trafficking to Mexico Face Planning and Coordination Challenges 28 (2009), at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d09709.pdf. ⤴︎
  9. U.S. Dep’t of Justice, Office of the Inspector General, Review of ATF’s Project Gunrunner 38-39 (November 2010), at www.justice.gov/oig/reports/ATF/e1101.pdf. ⤴︎
  10. Douglas S. Weil & Rebecca Knox, Evaluating the Impact of Virginia’s One-Gun-A-Month Law, The Center to Prevent Handgun Violence 1, 4-6 (Aug. 1995). ⤴︎
  11. Ipsos/Reuters Poll, Gun Rights & Regulations (April 2012), at http://www.ipsos- na.com/download/pr.aspx?id=11545 (Press Release at http://www.ipsos-na.com/news-polls/pressrelease.aspx?id=5586). ⤴︎
  12. Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research & the Tarrance Group for the Mayors Against Illegal Guns, Americans Support Common Sense Measures to Cut Down on Illegal Guns 6, (Apr. 10, 2008), available at http://www.mayorsagainstillegalguns.org/downloads/pdf/polling_memo.pdf. ⤴︎
  13. 18 U.S.C. § 923(g)(3)(A). “Multiple sales” are defined as the sale of two or more handguns by a federally licensed firearms dealer to a non-FFL purchaser within five consecutive business days. ⤴︎
  14. U.S. General Accounting Office, Federal Firearms Licensee Data—ATF’s Compliance with Statutory Restrictions 11 (Sept. 1996), available at http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/GAOREPORTS-GGD-96-174/pdf/GAOREPORTS-GGD-96-174.pdf. ⤴︎
  15. U.S. Dep’t of Justice, Office of the Inspector General, Review of ATF’s Project Gunrunner 36 (November 2010), at www.justice.gov/oig/reports/ATF/e1101.pdf. ⤴︎
  16. Letter from Charles Houser, Chief, Nat’l Tracing Ctr., to Fed. Firearms Licensees 1 (Jul. 12, 2011), at http://www.scribd.com/doc/61159256/ATF-Multiple-Rifle-Sale-Reporting-Requirement-LetterSee also Agency Information Collection Activities; Proposed Collection Comments Requested: Report of Multiple Sale or Other Disposition of Certain Rifles, 76 Fed. Reg. 24,058, 24,058 (Apr. 29, 2011); Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives, Q&As for the Report of Multiple Sale or Other Disposition of Certain Rifles, at http://www.atf.gov/files/firearms/industry/080911-qa-multiple-rifles.pdf. ⤴︎
  17. Agency Information Collection Activities; Proposed Collection Comments Requested: Report of Multiple Sale or Other Disposition of Certain Rifles, 76 Fed. Reg. 24,058, 24,058 (Apr. 29, 2011); Letter from Charles Houser, Chief, Nat’l Tracing Ctr., to Fed. Firearms Licensees 1 (Jul. 12, 2011), at http://www.scribd.com/doc/61159256/ATF-Multiple-Rifle-Sale-Reporting-Requirement-Letter. ⤴︎
  18. Id. ⤴︎
  19. U.S. Dept of Justice, Office of the Inspector General, Review of ATF’s Project Gunrunner 36 (November 2010), at www.justice.gov/oig/reports/ATF/e1101.pdf. According to ATF officials, “information ATF is able to maintain on certain firearms purchases, such as information on some multiple firearms purchases, enables ATF to more quickly trace those firearms if they turn up in crime because the information is already entered into a searchable database.” U.S. Gov’t Accountability Office, Firearms Trafficking: U.S. Efforts to Combat Arms Trafficking to Mexico Face Planning and Coordination Challenges 25 (June 2009), at http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-09-709. ⤴︎
  20. Alan Berlow, Center for Public Integrity, Current Gun Debate May Not Help Beleaguered ATF (Feb. 11, 2013), at http://www.publicintegrity.org/2013/02/11/12155/current-gun-debate-may-not-help-beleaguered-atf. ⤴︎
  21. 18 U.S.C. § 923(g)(3)(B).) Further, the federal reporting requirement for multiple sales can be evaded by gun traffickers in areas where there are no additional state or local laws. According to a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, “law enforcement officials noted traffickers are aware of how to avoid the federal reporting requirement by spreading out purchases of handguns at different FFLs. For example, traffickers can effectively purchase two or more guns within five business days without having such purchases reported as long as they purchase no more than one gun at any individual FFL.” ((U.S. Gov’t Accountability Office, Firearms Trafficking: U.S. Efforts to Combat Arms Trafficking to Mexico Face Planning and Coordination Challenges 28 (June 2009), at http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-09-709. ⤴︎
  22. South Carolina enacted a one-handgun-a-month law but repealed the provision in 2004. Virginia also enacted a one-handgun-a-month law but repealed the provision in 2012, due to strong lobbying by the firearms industry and National Rifle Association. ⤴︎
  23. Cal. Penal Code §§ 26835, 27535, 27540. This restriction does not apply to sales between private persons, even if they are processed as required through a licensed dealer. Cal. Penal Code § 27535. ⤴︎
  24. Md. Code Ann., Pub. Safety §§ 5-128(a), (b), ), 5-129, 5-144. Note that Maryland bans most assault weapons; see our summary on Assault Weapons for more information. ⤴︎
  25. N.J. Stat. Ann. §§ 2C:58-2(a)(7), 2C:58-3(i), 2C:58-3.4. New Jersey requires a handgun purchaser to obtain a separate permit for each handgun purchased, and present the permit to the seller. The seller must keep a copy of each permit presented. For more information about permits to purchase handguns and other licenses for gun owners and purchasers, see our summary on Licensing. ⤴︎
  26. N.Y. Admin. Code § 10-302.1. ⤴︎