Laws that require firearm owners to notify law enforcement about the loss or theft of a firearm serve several public safety functions. These laws help deter gun trafficking and straw purchasing,1 and help law enforcement recover and return lost or stolen guns to their rightful owners. They also help law enforcement disarm individuals who become ineligible to possess firearms.
According to ATF data, private individuals reported the loss or theft of more than 173,000 guns nationwide in 2012.2 But researchers have estimated that more than half a million firearms are lost or stolen from private residences in a single year.3 This discrepancy suggests that the majority of lost or stolen firearms are never reported to law enforcement, significantly hindering law enforcement efforts to trace the source of crime guns and to prevent weapons from falling into dangerous hands. Many of these 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 that ten percent of the investigations involved guns stolen from residences.4
Laws requiring the reporting of lost or stolen firearms are useful to law enforcement for several reasons. First, when a crime gun is traced by law enforcement to the last purchaser of record, the person who purchased the gun may often claim that the weapon was lost or stolen to hide his or her involvement in the crime or in intentionally trafficking the gun to a prohibited person. Reporting laws provide an important tool for law enforcement to detect this behavior and charge criminals who engage in it. Individuals who repeatedly report their guns lost or stolen also put law enforcement on notice that they may be trafficking firearms on the black market.
Second, reporting laws help disarm prohibited persons. When a person who legally owned a gun falls into a prohibited category, such as after a serious criminal conviction or domestic violence restraining order, it is crucial that law enforcement remove the firearm from his or her possession. However, when required to relinquish firearms, a prohibited offender or abuser may falsely claim that his or her gun was previously lost or stolen. Mandatory reporting laws provide a check against this behavior.
Third, the reporting requirement helps law enforcement track down missing guns and return them to lawful owners before they fall into dangerous hands.
Finally, reporting laws make gun owners more accountable for their weapons, and help protect rightful gun owners from unwarranted criminal accusations when a gun that was lost or stolen from them is later recovered at a crime scene.
Where enacted, these laws have been shown to correlate with significant reductions in illegal gun trafficking. One study found that, per capita, states without lost or stolen reporting laws are the source of more than 2.5 times as many crime guns recovered in other states as states with a lost or stolen reporting requirement.5 States without lost or stolen reporting laws also sell 30% more “short time-to-crime guns,”6 meaning guns that are recovered from crime scenes within two years of their initial purchase. A shorter time-to-crime period suggests that the weapon was likely purchased by a person intentionally trafficking guns to criminals. See our summary on Gun Trafficking & Straw Purchasing 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 registered voters supported laws to require the reporting of lost or stolen firearms.7
Summary of Federal Law
Federal law does not require individual gun owners 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.8 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 any firearms to law enforcement.9 A tenth state, Maryland, requires individuals to report the loss or theft of handguns and assault weapons but not other firearms, while an eleventh state, Michigan, requires owners to notify law enforcement about firearm thefts but not lost firearms.
New Jersey has also adopted a relevant law imposing civil liability for acts perpetrated with stolen firearms, as described below.
States with Mandatory Loss/Theft Reporting Laws
District of Columbia13
Maryland (loss or theft of handguns and assault weapons only)15
Michigan (firearm thefts only)17
Civil Liability for Stolen Firearms
States that Require Loss/Theft Reporting
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 “forthwith” the loss or theft of any firearm “in the person’s possession or under the person’s control.” Similarly, D.C.’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.
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 then 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. Maryland’s law, which applies to handguns and assault weapons, requires reporting to local law enforcement within 72 hours of discovering the loss or theft; local law enforcement must then enter this information into state and federal databases.
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.”23 Effective July 1, 2017, California’s law requires owners to notify local law enforcement within five days of the time they knew or reasonably should have known their firearms were lost or stolen. The local law enforcement agency is then required to electronically transmit a description of any lost or stolen firearms to the California Department of Justice.24
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.
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.
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 (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 (California, Connecticut).
- 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 period.25
- Reporting requirements should apply to all firearm types (California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, District of Columbia).
- 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. ⤴︎
- ATF, 2012 Summary: Firearms Reported Lost or Stolen 4 (Jun. 2013), at https://www.atf.gov/sites/default/files/assets/Firearms/2012-summary-firearms-reported-lost-and-stolen-2.pdf. ⤴︎
- ATF, Following the Gun: Enforcing Federal Laws Against Firearms Traffickers xi, 41 (Jun. 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. ⤴︎
- 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. ⤴︎
- Mayors Against Illegal Guns, Trace the Guns: The Link Between Gun Laws and Interstate Gun Trafficking 22-23 (Sept. 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). ⤴︎
- One of these states, California, adopted this law in November 2016 and will implement its reporting requirement starting in July 2017. ⤴︎
- Cal. Pen. Code § 25250, et seq. California’s reporting requirement was enacted through voters’ passage of Proposition 63 in November 2016. This requirement will become effective on July 1, 2017. ⤴︎
- 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). ⤴︎
- See Cal. Pen. Code § 25260. ⤴︎
- 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). ⤴︎