Home / Crime / Articles / ‘Time-to-crime’: a gun's path from legal ownership to crime

How long after a gun is bought does it end up on a crime scene?

This is what’s known as “time-to-crime” (TTC), the time in between when a gun’s last known legal purchase and when it is later used in a crime. It’s a metric tracked by law enforcement to better understand the sources of guns used or obtained illegally.

Law enforcement considers a short TTC to be an indicator of gun trafficking, or the movement of guns from legal purchase to illegal commerce or use. In other words, the shorter the time-to-crime, the more likely the gun was purchased with criminal intent.

There are three ways trafficked guns can enter illegal markets: straw purchases, or someone buying a gun on behalf of another person who cannot do so legally; private sellers; or theft from individuals or gun-sellers.

According to a report from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the share of crime guns with a TTC of one year or less increased from 19.7% in 2019 to 29.3% in 2020, approximately 10 percentage points. It rose again in 2021, to 32.2%.

The ATF calculated the time-to-crime for nearly 1.5 million guns used in crime between 2017 and 2021, representing 99.7% of all guns used in crimes tracked by the ATF.

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Since 2017, nearly a quarter of guns used in a crime and analyzed by the ATF had a TTC of one year or less. Of those, 9% had a TTC of three months or less, 6% had a TTC of three to seven months, and 9% had a TTC of seven months to a year.


Traced pistols had the shortest time-to-crime

Twenty-eight percent of traced pistols had a TTC of one year or less, over twice the percentage of shotguns and revolvers. Rifles followed at 20%.

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Time-to-crime varies by state

The median TTC for traced crime guns recovered in each state varies widely. Virginia had the shortest median TTC, 1.6 years, followed by Michigan at two years. Hawaii had the longest at 7.5 years, followed by Connecticut (5.9 years).

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PART III: Crime Guns Recovered and Traced Within the United States and Its Territories