Regulating bulk firearm purchases is a straightforward, effective way to reduce gun trafficking and save lives.
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. Only a handful of states limit bulk gun purchases, a policy that has been proven to reduce gun trafficking and consequently gun violence.
Laws limiting the number of guns someone can buy within a certain span of time help 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 Multiple sales are a significant indicator of firearms trafficking, and firearms sold in such sales are frequently recovered at crime scenes.
- Data indicates that approximately 20–25% of all handguns recovered at crime scenes were originally purchased as part of a multiple sale.4
- Handguns sold in multiple sales were up to 64% more likely to be used in crime than handguns sold individually.5
- A study of crime gun recoveries in Baltimore found that guns purchased in multiple sales were significantly more likely than guns purchased in single sales to be recovered from a possessor who was not the original buyer.6
Laws limiting multiple sales can help to reduce gun trafficking. After Virginia introduced its one-gun-a-month law, there was a significant reduction in the number of crime guns recovered outside the state and traced back to Virginia dealers.7
Americans support laws limiting the number of guns a person may purchase in a given time frame. A February 2018 poll found that 65% of respondents support limiting the number of guns that can be purchased to one per month.8
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.9 This reporting requirement was created to enable law enforcement to “monitor and deter illegal interstate commerce in pistols and revolvers by unlicensed persons,”10 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,”11 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.12 More specifically, the reporting requirement applies to semiautomatic rifles with a caliber greater than .22 and the ability to accept a detachable magazine.13 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.14
The federal reporting requirements have helped ATF combat gun trafficking. According to the US 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.”15 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.16
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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.17 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
Four states (California, Maryland, New Jersey, and Virginia) have laws limiting at least some types of firearm purchases or sales to one per month.18
Currently, California law generally prohibits people from purchasing more than one handgun from a licensed dealer per month,19 and restricts dealers from selling a handgun to a buyer if they are notified by the California Department of Justice that the buyer has already applied to acquire another handgun from a dealer within the preceding 30-day period.20
Effective July 1, 2021, California law will extend this bulk purchase limit to include the purchase from a dealer of either handguns or semiautomatic centerfire rifles.21 Dealers will be prevented from selling either type of firearm if they are notified that the buyer has already applied to acquire a handgun or semiautomatic centerfire rifle from a dealer within the preceding 30 days.
However, these restrictions do not (and will not) apply to firearm transfers between unlicensed parties, even when those transactions are processed through a licensed dealer.22
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.23
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.24
See our summary on Trafficking & Straw Purchases for additional laws to prevent gun trafficking.
It is generally unlawful for anyone to purchase more than one handgun within any 30-day period in Virginia.25
However, this prohibition does not apply to the following kinds of purchases:
- A purchase made after the buyer has submitted a special application to the State Police and undergone an enhanced background check pursuant to State Police regulations. The buyer must sign the application under oath, state the purpose for the purchase above the limit, and list the number and type of handguns to be purchased and transferred “for lawful business or personal use, in a collector series, for collections, as a bulk purchase from estate sales, and for similar purposes.” The State Police must immediately issue a certificate to an applicant who has met the requirements, including proof of residency and identity. That certificate remains valid for seven days. The buyer must surrender the certificate to the dealer before the sale, and the dealer must keep it on file for two years. The State Police may also allow local law enforcement agencies to issue these certificates, provided all requirements are met.
- A “private sale” of a handgun, defined to mean “a purchase from a person who makes occasional sales, exchanges, or purchases of firearms for the enhancement of a personal collection of curios or relics or who sells all or part of such collection of curious and relics.”26
The prohibition against purchasing more than one handgun within 30 days also does not apply to the following buyers:
- Licensed firearms dealers;
- Law enforcement officers, law enforcement agencies, and agencies duly authorized to perform law enforcement duties;
- State and local correctional facilities;
- Licensed private security companies;
- A person who is exchanging or replacing a handgun that he or she purchased within the last 30 days from the same seller;
- A person who is trading in one handgun for another, provided that no more than one trade-in is completed per day;
- A person whose handgun is stolen or irretrievably lost who deems it essential that such handgun be replaced immediately; and
- Virginia concealed handgun permit holders.27
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.28 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).
Universal background checks are essential to close deadly loopholes in our laws that allow millions of guns to end up in the hands of individuals at an elevated risk of committing violence each year.
Gun trafficking and straw purchasing dangerously undermine states’ gun safety laws and drive the illegal firearms market.
Gun violence intervention strategies reduce shootings in areas disproportionately impacted by interpersonal and community violence.
- Douglas S. Weil and Rebecca C. Knox, “Effects of Limiting Handgun Purchases on Interstate Transfer of Firearms,” JAMA 25, no. 22 (1996): 1759–1760.
- 18 U.S.C. § 923(g)(3)(A).
- Christopher S. Koper, “Crime Gun Risk Factors: Buyer, Seller, Firearm, and Transaction Characteristics Associated with Gun Trafficking and Criminal Gun Use,” National Institute of Justice, 2007, https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/221074.pdf.
- Christopher S. Koper “Crime gun risk factors: Buyer, Seller, Firearm, and Transaction Characteristics Associated with Gun Trafficking and Criminal Gun Use,” Journal of Quantitative Criminology 30, no. 2 (2014): 285-315.
- Douglas S. Weil and Rebecca C. Knox, “Effects of Limiting Handgun Purchases on Interstate Transfer of Firearms,” JAMA 25, no. 22 (1996): 1759–1760.
- “National Tracking Poll #180217,” Morning Consult and Politico, February 2018, https://www.politico.com/f/?id=00000161-d99e-da6b-ade9-ffbe99050002.
- 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.
- US 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.
- US 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.
- 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. See 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.
- 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.
- US 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.” US Gov’t Accountability Office, Firearms Trafficking: US Efforts to Combat Arms Trafficking to Mexico Face Planning and Coordination Challenges 25 (June 2009), at http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-09-709.
- 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.
- 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 US 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.”((US Gov’t Accountability Office, Firearms Trafficking: US Efforts to Combat Arms Trafficking to Mexico Face Planning and Coordination Challenges 28 (June 2009), at http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-09-709.
- South Carolina enacted a one-handgun-a-month law but repealed the provision in 2004. In 2020, Virginia enacted a one-handgun-a-month law that had been repealed in 2012, due to strong lobbying by the firearms industry and National Rifle Association.
- Cal. Penal Code § 27535.
- Cal. Penal Code § 27540(f).
- See 2019 CA SB 61.
- Cal. Penal Code § 27535. There are a number of other exceptions to these restrictions laid out in this section, including, but not limited to, exceptions for law enforcement agencies, private security companies, licensed collectors, and the replacement of a lost or stolen firearm. Id.
- 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.
- 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.
- Va. Code Ann. § 308.2:2(R).
- N.Y. Admin. Code § 10-302.1.