Laws that require firearm owners to report lost or stolen firearms serve several public safety functions. These laws help deter gun trafficking and discourage straw purchasing, as well as facilitate the return of lost or stolen guns to their lawful owners. They also help law enforcement disarm individuals who become ineligible to possess firearms.
Laws requiring the reporting of lost or stolen guns deter gun trafficking (the diversion of firearms from the legal to illegal market) by providing law enforcement with indicators of trafficking and straw purchasing.1 When a gun is found at a crime scene and traced by law enforcement back to the original purchaser, that individual may falsely claim that the gun was lost or stolen to hide his or her involvement in trafficking. Reporting laws put law enforcement on notice of individuals who repeatedly: (1) fail to file reports yet claim that their guns were lost or stolen after they are recovered from a crime scene; or (2) report their guns lost or stolen, indicating that the person may be trafficking firearms.
Reporting laws also make gun owners more accountable for their weapons and make it easier for law enforcement to locate a lost or stolen firearm and return it to its owner. Timely reporting of gun thefts and losses also enables police to trace guns more effectively, and makes the successful prosecution of users of stolen guns more likely.
In addition, reporting laws help disarm persons prohibited from possessing firearms. When a person who legally owned a gun falls into a prohibited category, it is crucial for law enforcement to be able to remove the firearm from his or her possession. For example, a gun owner who becomes the subject of a domestic violence restraining order is not permitted under federal law to continue to possess firearms. However, when ordered to surrender a firearm by law enforcement or a judge, the owner may falsely claim it has been lost or stolen. Mandatory reporting laws deter this behavior.
Stolen guns also supply the market for crime guns. Data from the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (“ATF”) indicates that more than 173,000 guns were reported lost or stolen by persons other than federally licensed dealers in 2012.2 Survey research indicates that at least 500,000 firearms are stolen annually from residences, however.3 This discrepancy shows that most lost or stolen firearms are not reported.
Many stolen guns are used to commit subsequent crimes. A U.S. Department of the Treasury study revealed that nearly a quarter of ATF gun trafficking investigations involved stolen firearms and were associated with over 11,000 trafficked firearms. Ten percent of the investigations involved guns stolen from residences.4
Significantly, laws requiring the reporting of lost and stolen firearms are associated with a reduction in gun trafficking. One study found that states without mandatory lost or stolen reporting laws export two and a half times more crime guns across state lines than jurisdictions with such laws.5 See
our summary on Gun Trafficking & Straw Purchases for more information.
The public overwhelmingly supports laws requiring the reporting of lost or stolen firearms. A nationwide poll in 2011 found that 94% of Americans surveyed favor laws to require the reporting of lost or stolen firearms.6
Summary of Federal Law
Federal law does not require individual gun owners or other lawful possessors of firearms to report the loss or theft of a firearm to law enforcement.
Federal law does, however, require licensed firearms dealers to report the loss or theft of any firearm from the dealer’s inventory to the U.S. Attorney General or local law enforcement within 48 hours of discovering the loss or theft.7 For more information about dealer regulations and firearms missing from dealers’ inventories, see our summary on Dealer Regulations.
Summary of State Law
Nine states and the District of Columbia require firearm owners to report the loss or theft of their firearms to law enforcement. In addition, Maryland has a requirement that only applies to handguns and assault weapons. New Jersey has also adopted a relevant law, as described below.
Mandatory Loss/Theft Reporting
Civil Liability for Stolen Firearms
Description of State Laws Governing Reporting of Lost or Stolen Firearms:
1. States that Require Loss/Theft Reporting: In New York and Rhode Island, owners must report the loss or theft of any firearm to local law enforcement within 24 hours of discovery. In New York, the report must include “the facts and circumstances of the loss or theft,” including whether ammunition was stolen as well. Local law enforcement in New York then reports the information to the State Police.
New Jersey requires gun owners to report the loss or theft of any firearm to local law enforcement where the loss or theft occurred (or to the Superintendent of State Police if the locality has no police force) within 36 hours of discovery. Connecticut requires firearm owners to report to local law enforcement within 72 hours of when they discovered or should have discovered the loss or theft. Local law enforcement in Connecticut reports the information to the State Police. Similarly, Illinois requires a firearm owner to report to law enforcement within 72 hours of obtaining knowledge of the loss or theft of a firearm, and law enforcement must enter this information into a state-wide database. The Maryland law only applies to handguns and assault weapons and requires reporting to local law enforcement within 72 hours of when the owner first discovers the loss or theft; local law enforcement must then enter this information into state and federal databases.
In Massachusetts, firearm owners are required to report the loss or theft of any firearm “forthwith” to the State Police and the local licensing authority. Penalties for a violation of the Massachusetts law include suspension or permanent revocation of the owner’s firearm identification card or license to carry firearms. Ohio law also penalizes anyone who knowingly fails to report “to law enforcement authorities forthwith” the loss or theft of any firearm “in the person’s possession or under the person’s control.” Similarly, the District of Columbia’s law applies to any registered firearm and applies “immediately” upon discovery of the loss or theft. The owner must report the circumstances of the loss or theft, if known, in writing. Registration certificates are revoked if the owner fails to report a lost or stolen firearm a second time, and the person becomes prohibited from possessing a firearm for five years.
Michigan’s law applies only to thefts of firearms, which must be reported within five days of discovery to a “police agency having jurisdiction over that theft.”20 Delaware’s law requires firearm owners to report the loss or theft of the firearm within seven days of discovery of the loss or theft to either local or state law enforcement.
2. Civil Liability for Stolen Firearms: In New Jersey, if a registered assault weapon is used in the commission of a crime, the registered owner of that weapon is civilly liable for any damages resulting from that crime. This liability does not apply if the assault weapon was stolen and the registered owner reported the theft to law enforcement within 24 hours of his or her knowledge of the theft.
SELECTED LOCAL LAW
In 2007, the City of Sacramento, California joined the rising number of California localities that have enacted ordinances requiring firearm owners to report lost or stolen firearms. Sacramento’s ordinance makes it unlawful for any person who owns or possesses a firearm to “knowingly or negligently” fail to report such loss or theft. The person must report this information to the Sacramento Police Department within 48 hours of when the person “knew or should have known” that the firearm was lost or stolen. This requirement applies when the owner or possessor resides in the City, or the theft or loss of the firearm occurred in the City. A violation of this requirement is a misdemeanor.21
The Law Center’s September 2011 publication, Model Laws for a Safer America: Seven Regulations to Promote Responsible Gun Ownership and Sales, includes a model law requiring the reporting of lost or stolen firearms. Please contact the Law Center for further information.
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.
- Firearm owners are required to report the loss or theft of any firearm as soon as possible after discovery, either immediately or within 24 hours of discovery (Massachusetts, Ohio, District of Columbia – immediately; New York, Rhode Island – within 24 hours)
- The duty to report is triggered at the time the firearm owner knew or should have known that the firearm was lost or stolen (Connecticut, Sacramento)
- Owners of firearms lost or stolen (and not recovered) within a designated time period prior to the adoption of the law must report to law enforcement within a reasonable period22
- Reporting requirements should apply to all firearm types (Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, District of Columbia, Sacramento)
- Lost and stolen firearms are reported to local and state law enforcement (Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York)
- Firearm owners are subject to civil liability for failure to report a lost or stolen firearm that is later used in crime (New Jersey — assault weapons only)
- Reporting of lost or stolen firearms is a condition of any license or registration required by the jurisdiction, and license/registration is subject to revocation for failure to report (District of Columbia, Massachusetts)
- Straw purchasers play a special role in gun trafficking. A “straw purchase” occurs when the actual buyer of a firearm uses another person, a “straw purchaser,” to execute the paperwork necessary to purchase a firearm from a federally licensed firearms dealer. People who are prohibited from purchasing firearms and people who do not want to be identified through crime gun tracing often obtain firearms through straw purchases. ⤴
- Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms, U.S. Department of Justice, 2012 Summary: Firearms Reported Lost or Stolen 4 (June 2013), at https://www.atf.gov/sites/default/files/assets/Firearms/2012-summary-firearms-reported-lost-and-stolen-2.pdf. ⤴
- Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms, U.S. Department of the Treasury, Following the Gun: Enforcing Federal Laws Against Firearms Traffickers xi, 41 (June 2000), at http://www.mayorsagainstillegalguns.org/downloads/pdf/Following_the_Gun%202000.pdf. ⤴
- Following the Gun: Enforcing Federal Laws Against Firearms Traffickers, supra note 6, at 11, 41. ⤴
- A crime gun is “exported” from one state to another if it was sold to a retail consumer in one state and then recovered after being used in a crime in a different state. Mayors Against Illegal Guns, Trace the Guns: The Link Between Gun Laws and Interstate Gun Trafficking 22-23 (September 2010), at http://www.tracetheguns.org/report.pdf. ⤴
- American Viewpoint and Momentum Analysis for Mayors Against Illegal Guns, Results From A National Survey Of 1003 Registered Voters (January 2011), at http://gunvictimsaction.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/MAIG_poll_presentation_1_18_11.pdf. See also Mayors Against Illegal Guns, New
Polls In Five Bellwether States Show Overwhelming Support To Fix Gun Background Check System (March 2011), (showing similar results from polls in five bellwether states – Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Ohio and Virginia); Mayors Against Ilegal Guns, Gun Owners Poll (July 2012), at http://www.joycefdn.org/assets/1/7/MAIGpoll072012.pdf (showing that 68% of gun owners support
lost and stolen reporting laws). ⤴
- 18 U.S.C. § 923(g)(6). ⤴
- Conn. Gen. Stat. § 53-202g. ⤴
- Del. Code tit. 11, § 1461. ⤴
- D.C. Code Ann. § 7-2502.08(a), (e). ⤴
- 720 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/24-4.1 ⤴
- Md. Code Ann., Pub. Safety § 5-146. 2013 Md. S.B. 281 (effective October 1, 2013). ⤴
- Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 140, § 129C. ⤴
- Mich. Comp. Laws § 28.430. ⤴
- N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:58-19. ⤴
- N.Y. Penal Law § 400.10. ⤴
- Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 2923.20(A)(5). ⤴
- R.I. Gen. Laws § 11-47-48.1. ⤴
- N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:58-12(g). ⤴
- Mich. Comp. Laws § 28.430(1). ⤴
- Sacramento, Cal., Municipal Code § 9.32.180. ⤴
- Los Angeles’s ordinance required owners of firearms lost or stolen within five years prior to the adoption of the ordinance to report the loss or theft within 60 days of the law’s adoption. Los Angeles, Cal., Municipal Code ch. V, art. 5, § 55.12 (effective December 3, 2006). ⤴