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Tracing Data to Reduce Gun Trafficking

How New York State’s Office of the Attorney General created a new platform to combat gun trafficking through data analytics.

This story was originally published by Data-Smart City Solutions.

A recent gun trafficking bust in New York State confiscated over 200 guns from Virginia. The guns were brought into New York through what’s known to law enforcement as the Iron Pipeline, a route on Interstate 95 through which gun trafficking rings purchase firearms in states with weaker gun laws and transport them into New York and other northern states. Low-priced guns from southern states flow up the pipeline and are sold for hundreds of dollars more in New York. A large portion of guns recovered from New York crime scenes are traced back to southern gun sellers, posing a problem for northern states with stronger gun laws but continued gun violence.  

A new data initiative undertaken by the New York State Office of Attorney General (NYAG) examines the Iron Pipeline’s impact on gun trafficking. The NYAG created the first-of-its-kind project, Target on Trafficking: New York Crime Gun Analysis, and an accompanying online interactive Tracing Analytics Platform to better understand gun trafficking patterns and to assess the efficacy of laws combating illegal guns in New York State. The NYAG report, informed by an analysis of gun trace data, highlights how guns flow into New York from states with weaker gun laws. The platform not only provides data to inform local law enforcement about gun crimes in their own areas, but also carries substantial implications for the future of state and federal gun laws. The data-driven confirmation of the Iron Pipeline’s existence and impact can be used to encourage policy decisions concerning future gun laws in New York and other states, and it showcases the power of data to analyze complex problems. 

Data Collection

The NYAG regularly conducts crime analyses, but obtaining gun data for this project was no easy task. Restrictions in federal appropriations bills, known as the Tiahrt Amendments, prevent the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) from releasing firearm trace data for use by cities, states, researchers, and members of the public. Firearms tracing is the systematic tracking of the movement of firearms recovered by law enforcement officials from the first sale by the manufacturer, through wholesaler/retailer, and to the first retail purchaser.

“Generally speaking, data on guns is a thin commodity. There are federal laws prohibiting CDC research and restricting the FBI’s ability to maintain records on gun purchases, as well as several laws preventing ATF from sharing gun trace data,” said Nicholas Suplina, Senior Advisor and Special Counsel at NYAG.

In preparation for the project, Suplina believed that the NYAG might have an opening to obtain the data. “Looking at the federal restrictions, we thought that the New York State Attorney General would fall under the [legal] exceptions and ultimately ATF agreed.”

Pursuant to legal restrictions, ATF provided NYAG researchers with a 2010-2015 anonymized gun trace data set including information such as date of purchase, date of recovery, zip code of recovery, weapon type, and state of purchase. “It was more than enough to get a good picture of where the crime guns were being recovered and where they were coming from,” Suplina said.

Researchers also downloaded the United States Census Bureau Annual Estimates of the Resident Population for each New York State county from 2010 through 2015, later used to calculate firearm recoveries per 100,000 residents by year.

Analytics Creation

After obtaining granular data, researchers looked to build an interactive tool that would not only have a multi-filter capability, but would also be easy to use.

“It was definitely a work in process,” said Lacey Keller, Director of Research and Analytics at NYAG. The creation phase led to the current interactive data visualization tool, the Tracing Analytics Platform, which enables users to filter across characteristics including gun source date, gun purchase date, recovery location, recovery year, and gun type.

In order to trace the extent of gun trafficking across the state, researchers also combined several data points into a “trafficking index.” For every gun in the dataset, they created a score for the data points of time-to-crime (the difference between the recovery date and the last recorded purchase date, calculated in months and years), border-crossing (guns that cross state borders), and unrecorded gun transactions (proportion of total guns that have an unrecorded gun transaction, when a gun passes hands without documentation). These three scores were then weighted and added to form one trafficking index with scores ranging from 0-100. A gun with a high trafficking index (closer to 100) suggests it was trafficked. Similarly, a geographic area with a high average trafficking index has a higher proportion of trafficked guns.



The data collection efforts and analytic capability of the NYAG team unearthed clear conclusions: in the combined report statistics, 74 percent of guns recovered at crime scenes originated out-of-state and 57 percent of all recovered guns were out-of-state handguns. 87 percent of the guns recovered in New York City originated out-of-state.

In addition, report findings illustrated a demand for illegal guns across New York and highlighted specific areas, or “markets,” that are popular for gun traffickers. The map of all gun recoveries in New York from 2010-2015, 52,915 guns in total, shows clusters in and around New York’s biggest cities: New York City, the Lower-Hudson Valley, the Capital Region, Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo.


The NYAG’s Organized Crime Task Force and other law enforcement agencies have combatted the gun trafficking rings that purchase firearms in states with weaker gun laws and transport the weapons to New York markets. The agencies’ work can be enhanced through the data analysis provided by the Tracing Analytics Platform. Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, had the highest percentage of guns originally from their states recovered in New York, supporting the Iron Pipeline hypothesis that areas with weaker gun laws contribute to the movement of guns to places with stronger laws. The majority of guns recovered had been purchased less than one year prior, and guns purchased between the prior one to two years are the next group of guns most likely to be trafficked in New York.


The Policy Implications of Data

The Tracing Analytics Platform democratizes gun trace data and provides public access to often unattainable information. “In this national debate we’re having, we want to improve access to data to have a smart conversation,” Suplina said. “Analysis of this data shows that New York’s handgun laws are working incredibly well but we have a severe out-of-state handgun problem that the numbers don’t lie about.”

For lawmakers, this platform is just one slice of gun data. “We believe that when you look at handgun [data] especially, that this is enough of an out-of-state problem that lawmakers could be using this tool to pass laws that combat out-of-state gun trafficking more effectively or penalize it more severely,” Suplina said.

The report offers various recommendations to curb gun trafficking. These recommendations include supporting a federal law that makes gun trafficking a federal crime, encouraging mandated background checks on private sales, and increasing licensing requirements across states.

Expanding the Use of Gun Trafficking Data

The Tracing Analytics Platform highlights government officials’ ability to trace interstate gun trafficking, and should embolden other states and law enforcement entities to share firearm trace data and intelligence. The NYAG’s robust research and analytics arm enables advanced work across various data analytics initiatives and welcomes inquiries from other offices regarding best practices. “We’re trying to be good stewards of data. We’re big consumers of data and we want to be producers as well,” Keller said.

Similar gun trafficking data platforms could inform the illegal firearm challenges facing other states. “If we were to integrate datasets regionally, my strong intuition is that we would see the same patterns, just that much more sharply,” Suplina said.  

Better use of comprehensive trace data or even summary level gun data could help detect the sources of firearms, track movement of crime guns, and inform law enforcement strategies to strengthen communities and reduce gun violence.

Looking Forward

While the New York Attorney General’s Office has created a groundbreaking platform analyzing the impact of gun policy on firearm trafficking, the office’s work is far from over. Looking forward, NYAG hopes to use data from major police departments to track information on trafficked guns, potentially tracing and eliminating large players in the gun trafficking industry.

“We’re going through a lot of logistic questions about how to it use it. Law enforcement is excited about it,” Suplina said. “It could really be a game changer.”