Minnesota is in the middle of the pack on gun safety, federal data show

By: - February 16, 2023 6:00 am

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

Several pieces of gun control legislation are making their way through the Legislature this session, with narrow DFL majorities in both chambers making their eventual passage into law a distinct possibility, but by no means a certain one. 

Those bills include:

Gun rights groups, including the National Rifle Association and the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus, have been lobbying hard against the new restrictions. They argue that new regulations would infringe upon the rights of law-abiding gun owners while doing little to deter criminals.

That dichotomy — between law-abiding citizens who need guns for protection and the violent criminals who would take advantage of them — has informed much of America’s gun rights rhetoric over the past several decades. 

But new data released by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms shows that the line between a good guy with a gun and a bad guy with a gun is often a blurry one.

Between 2017 and 2021, according to the new ATF data, law enforcement officers recovered 20,728 guns from crime scenes in Minnesota. The report doesn’t detail what types of crimes the guns were suspected of being involved in.

For a little over 10,000 of those guns, authorities were able to identify both the person who purchased the firearm, as well as the person in possession of it at the scene of the crime. 

In 1,878 of those cases the purchaser and possessor were the same person: The good guy who purchased the gun lawfully had become the bad guy holding it at the crime scene. That’s about 18% of the crime guns for which authorities were able to identify both the purchaser and possessor.

In another 8,755 cases the purchaser and possessor were different: Someone had bought a gun legally, and then at a later date it ended up in the hands of someone committing a crime.

Finally, for another 10,000 or so guns, authorities were either unable to identify who purchased them, or unable to identify who was in possession of the gun at the time of the suspected crime. (This could happen, for instance, when authorities recover abandoned weapons on the street.)

For the typical gun recovered from a Minnesota crime scene, about 3.4 years elapsed between when it was purchased and when it was recovered by law enforcement. Authorities consider that “time-to-crime” metric to be a key indicator of illegal gun trafficking, with shorter windows between sale and crime indicative of a more active black market.

Minnesota’s window of 3.4 years is about on par with the national average. States with stronger gun laws generally have longer time-to-crime windows, the ATF data show, while in those with more lax requirements guns end up on the black market more rapidly. 

If this seems like useful information somehow missing from the public debate, you’d be right: The data was released at the behest of Attorney General Merrick Garland, who in 2021 directed the ATF to compile and release the numbers in order to help law enforcement combat the rising rate of nationwide gun crime.

Daniel Webster, director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University, said he isn’t necessarily surprised by these numbers. “If you look at federal surveys of state prisoners who were incarcerated for a violent crime with a firearm, 30%-60% were legal to purchase and possess the gun they used to commit the crime that led to their incarceration,” he said via email.

Webster says there’s a lot of variation in this number between states, with one of the chief drivers being “legal standards for handgun purchase/possession.” In other words: Regulation. 

Some of those standards are what’s being debated in the Minnesota Legislature right now: Should people buying guns from private sellers be subject to the same background check requirements as those purchasing from licensed dealers? Should law enforcement have the power to temporarily remove guns from the possession of people making violent threats to themselves or others?

The safe storage and mandatory theft reporting bills, meanwhile, aim to reduce the likelihood of a legally purchased gun making its way to the black market through loss or theft.

Overall, Minnesota’s middle-of-the-pack results in the ATF numbers mirror gun control advocates’ middling assessments of the state’s gun laws. DFL lawmakers’ efforts this session reflect their hope that tighter regulations can help reduce the toll of gun violence here

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Christopher Ingraham
Christopher Ingraham

Christopher Ingraham covers greater Minnesota and reports on data-driven stories across the state. He's the author of the book "If You Lived Here You'd Be Home By Now," about his family's journey from the Baltimore suburbs to rural northwest Minnesota. He was previously a data reporter for the Washington Post.