Where’d Those Missing Guns Go?

Since the tragedy in Tucson, gun reform advocates have declared war against the sort of high-capacity clip legally obtained and used by alleged shooter Jared Lee Loughner. Less discussed, though, has been the thriving underground gun trade that continues to provide criminals with easy access to the high-powered firearms.

Now, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence has dug up some shocking statistics that show just how prevalent and accessible these off-the-books guns actually are. Drawing on research from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence estimates that licensed gun dealers “lost” an average of at least 56 firearms a day over the last three years. From 2008 to 2010, at least 62,134 firearms vanished from the inventories of of gun dealers. And those are just the guns the ATF knows went missing. According to Brady:

The 62,134 “missing” guns are likely a vast undercount of the total number of guns that disappeared from gun shops in the last three years. The missing guns are noted at ATF compliance inspections of licensed gun dealers, but ATF has conducted compliance inspections each year at only about one-fifth of the nation’s gun shops. Gun dealers inspected by ATF could not account for 22,770 guns in 2008, 18,323 guns in 2009, and 21,041 in 2010.

Because these unaccounted-for guns have no record of sale, they’re highly sought after by criminals, who buy them on the black market from gun traffickers. And corrupt gun dealers often disguise off-the-book sales by claiming that firearms were lost or stolen.

“It’s the height of irresponsibility for gun dealers to allow tens of thousands of firearms to leave their shops without background checks or a record of sale. Congress is also to blame for its refusal to fully fund and staff the ATF and to strengthen our nation’s weak guns,” said Paul Helmke, President of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “Every gun that leaves a gun shop without a background check is one that fuels the illegal gun market and endangers our communities.”

Actual law enforcement is what’s missing here. But Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY) has introduced legislation that could help address at least some of the illegal circulation of firearms. Often times, gun dealers who’ve had their licenses revoked are allowed to transfer their inventory into their “personal collections,” then selling those guns without performing any sort of background checks on their customers, or keeping any records on their potential customers. That creates a considerable loophole, Ackerman says, that has led to thousands of guns being purchased by individuals who never had a background check, with some of those same weapons being used in deadly shootings.

Ackerman’s bill aims to close this “fire-sale loophole.” Its fate—along with that of Carolyn McCarthy’s bill seeking to ban high-capacity magazines, like the 30-round clip used by alleged Tucson shooter Jared Loughner—remains up in the air.


In 2014, before Donald Trump announced his run for president, we knew we had to do something different to address the fundamental challenge facing journalism: how hard-hitting reporting that can hold the powerful accountable can survive as the bottom falls out of the news business.

Being a nonprofit, we started planning The Moment for Mother Jones: A special campaign to raise $25 million for key investments to make Mother Jones the strongest watchdog it can be. Five years later, readers have stepped up and contributed an astonishing $23 million in gifts and future pledges. This is an incredible statement from the Mother Jones community in the face of the huge threats—both economic and political—against the free press.

Read more about The Moment and see what we've been able to accomplish thanks to readers' incredible generosity so far, and please join them today. Your gift will be matched dollar for dollar, up to $500,000 total, during this critical moment for journalism.

We Recommend


Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.


We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.