Four years ago, Maryland passed some of the toughest gun restrictions in the country, including a ban on the sale or manufacture of ammunition magazines large enough to hold more than 10 rounds. The intent of the law was to curb supplies of so-called high-capacity magazines in places like Baltimore, where at least 189 people died that year in shootings.
So far, the ban has done little to stamp out the use of big magazines by criminals, an analysis of law enforcement records by The Trace found. Baltimore police confiscated nearly 450 guns last year with enough room in the magazine to carry at least 11 rounds — high-capacity, as defined by the state — more than during any period in at least the last seven years.
Twenty-two percent of all recovered firearms were equipped with a high-capacity magazine, a 4 percentage point increase over 2013, the year the ban was adopted.
Baltimore police say larger magazines have surged in popularity among criminals because they can squeeze off more shots without reloading — and increase their odds of a kill. An investigation by The Baltimore Sun last year found that the number of corpses at the Maryland medical examiner’s office with at least 10 gunshot wounds had doubled in the past decade.
T.J. Smith, a Baltimore police spokesperson, said it was not uncommon for officers to pull up at crime scenes and find the street littered with spent shell casings.
“We’re dealing with absolute criminals who want as much weaponry as possible when they’re going after their targets,” Smith told The Trace. “They’re not carrying .22s. They’re carrying the big guns that have these high capacities.”
High-capacity magazines have been a point of fiery contention for decades. Opponents of magazine limits argue that having more bullets between reloads enhances self-defense. Supporters of tougher rules, meanwhile, contend that when shooters can rattle off more shots, their attacks are likely to be more lethal, and that the reloading period offers a crucial window in which bystanders or police officers can intervene.
In 2011, Jared Lee Loughner, armed with two 33-round magazines, shot U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords and 18 other people in front of an Arizona supermarket. His attack was cut short when two men tackled him as he tried to reload.
High-capacity magazines are often associated with assault-style rifles like the AR-15, and mass shootings, like the massacre of schoolchildren at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012. But they are also common in handguns, the weapon used in the majority of all shootings.
Some gun owners purchase large magazines for their firearms, but they also come standard with many popular semiautomatic pistols — the Glock 17, for example, comes shipped from the factory with a capacity of 17 rounds.
The Trace found that between 2010 and 2016, nearly 82 percent — 2,100 — of the high-capacity magazines confiscated by Baltimore police were loaded in pistols. The majority of the handguns accepted 9mm or .40-caliber ammunition. As The Trace and The Baltimore Sun reported, as larger, more lethal rounds became the favorites of legal gun owners, they veered into criminal marketplaces as well.
“That’s disappointing,” Jen Pauliukonis, president of Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence, said after learning about the increase. Her group advocated the ban, which was one of several provisions wrapped into the Firearm Safety Act of 2013.
“I hope as we work toward strengthening implementation and enforcement of the Firearm Safety Act that we still start to see over time a reduction in these numbers,” Pauliukonis said.
Criminologists and law enforcement officials say the uptick in the recovery of high-capacity guns in Baltimore underscores the limits of Maryland’s ban, which lawmakers tailored to allow people who already owned high-capacity magazines to keep them. The law banned the selling, manufacturing or transferring of high-capacity magazines, but not the possession of them.
Maryland’s efforts to choke off the illegal use of high-capacity magazines have also been hobbled by inflows of weapons from other states, few of which limit magazine size. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University who analyzed trace data on firearms recovered in Baltimore following the passage of the Firearms Safety Act concluded that all but a small fraction of the guns used in crimes in those years were purchased in Maryland before the law went into effect or out of state, said Daniel Webster, one of the study’s authors and the director of the university’s Center for Gun Policy and Research. Trace data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives show that the majority of out-of-state crime guns recovered in Maryland originate in Pennsylvania or Virginia. Neither state bans the sale of high-capacity magazines.
Experts say that laws that include grandfathered provisions can take several years to produce significant declines in the circulation of such guns. That’s because new firearms rarely surface in connection to crimes. The majority of guns that Maryland law enforcement agencies submitted for traces in 2015 were first purchased an average of 12 years ago, according to ATF data.
Christopher Koper, an associate professor of criminology at George Mason University, studied the national magazine cap in place from 1994 to 2004. He found that the ratio of guns recovered with high-capacity magazines in Baltimore held steady for years until 2002 and 2003, when it dropped 24 percent.
A spokesperson for Attorney General Brian Frosh of Maryland, one of the Democratic state senators who sponsored the ban, said in an email that the number of high-capacity magazines in circulation likely spiked immediately before the law took effect, as people stocked up on assault-style weapons — which are often outfitted with large magazines — before they became harder to get. While Marylanders can still legally buy high-capacity magazines in other states, the attorney general’s office and other law enforcement agencies have said that most criminals prefer to use what they can get closer to home.
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“It’s more than likely that the effects of the law just haven’t had sufficient time to show,” said the spokesperson, Raquel Coombs. She added that it is “possible that we are just now getting to the point where the number of [high-capacity magazines] is below what it would have been in the absence of the law.”
The Trace’s data, which was obtained through a public records request, lists the capacity of each firearm confiscated by the Baltimore Police Department between 2010 and 2016. Because the department factors in the bullet that can fit in the chamber when determining a firearm’s capacity, The Trace only included in its count magazines with a listed capacity of 12 or more (at least 11 in the magazine, one in the chamber).
Of the 450 high-capacity magazines confiscated by Baltimore police last year, about 40 could hold 30 rounds or more. The largest was a 50-round magazine attached to a SKS-model rifle.
At least eight states and the District of Columbia have imposed limits on magazine capacities, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Most, like Maryland, cap the number of legally allowable rounds at 10. New Jersey and Colorado, however, ban magazines that hold more than 15 rounds.
In 1994, Congress imposed more stringent regulations on magazines and assault-style weapons with what became known as the Federal Assault Weapons Ban. The law capped magazine capacity at 10 rounds and imposed a slew of other rules that supporters hoped would block the flow of military-style hardware to the black market.
But the law was riddled with loopholes. Most notably, the act exempted high-capacity magazines produced before its effective date. As in Maryland, the specter of impending restrictions drove a spike in demand. Manufacturers responded by pumping out the magazines with a frenzy. When the ban finally became law, an estimated 25 to 50 million high-capacity magazines remained in American hands. Since a sunset provision caused the ban to expire in 2004, manufacturers have enjoyed skyrocketing sales, particularly under the Obama administration, when gun owners were in a constant state of fear over the thought of more government regulations.
Maryland’s cap on magazine capacity was also part of a crackdown on assault-style rifles. The Firearm Safety Act was a reaction to the 2012 Newtown shooting in which a gunman wielding a Bushmaster rifle and 30-round magazines fired more than 150 shots in less than five minutes, killing 20 elementary school children and six adults.
That incident catalyzed national calls for stricter gun control. But with skepticism surrounding Congress’s ability or willingness to pass legislation, then-Governor Martin O’Malley started urging Maryland lawmakers to approve a state ban. The state already prohibited magazines that held more than 20 rounds, but the Firearm Safety Act cut that to 10.
Hawaii, New Jersey, New York and the District of Columbia are the only states that ban outright the ownership of high-capacity magazines, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Come July 1, California may join that list if a measure signed by Governor Jerry Brown survives a legal challenge from gun groups.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis has been lobbying state lawmakers to toughen penalties for carrying illegal magazines, which is a misdemeanor. Smith, the police spokesperson, said criminals don’t care if they get caught because they are unlikely to do hard time.
“It’s always a growing concern any time you have bad guys and criminals on the street that have just as much capacity if not more capacity than law enforcement has,” Smith said. But, he said later, “until there are consequences, I don’t know if the law is really going to matter.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban did not ban the possession of high-capacity magazines. The act did ban the possession of high-capacity magazines that were not manufactured before the law’s enactment.