Guns that go missing or are stolen from their original owners are much more prone to be used in crimes, according to a new analysis that provides insights into how legally bought firearms slip onto the black market. 

For the study, which was announced in March after being published in the journal Injury Epidemiology, the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California campus in Davis analyzed over 8 million gun sales records and tens of thousands of reports of crime guns being recovered by law enforcement. They found that guns reported lost were three times more likely to be used in crimes, while stolen guns had nearly nine times the likelihood. 

The analysis also highlighted first-time gun purchasers as well as buyers who snap up a dozen or more guns in a year as being particularly vulnerable to seeing their weapons wind up in a police evidence locker. Many of the crime guns the researchers looked at were cheap handguns. That is in line with previous studies that found criminals prefer low-cost pistols. 

“California has had a lot more laws in the past 20 years,” Sonia Robinson, an epidemiologist and one of the study’s authors, told The Trace. “The gun markets have changed, but handguns from low-cost manufacturers continue to get picked up in crimes.”

The study could have implications for public policy, not only in California but also in the rest of the country, with the researchers noting that guarding firearms against theft and loss should be a “primary focus” of efforts to prevent gun violence.

In 2017, The Trace, in partnership with more than a dozen NBC TV stations, sifted through police records from hundreds of jurisdictions and identified more than 23,000 stolen firearms recovered by law enforcement over a six-year period. The vast majority of those guns surfaced at crime scenes, including carjackings and kidnappings, armed robberies at stores and banks, sexual assaults and homicides, and other violent acts perpetrated around the United States.  

“When I see a stolen gun, I see a future murder, a future robbery, a future crime,” said Graham Barlowe, a former agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the federal agency that investigates gun trafficking. 

California is one of 15 states that require gun owners to report the theft of at least some types of firearms to police, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, an organization that advocates tighter gun laws. As The Trace has reported, law enforcement officials say that reports of missing guns help them spot crime trends and prosecute criminals. 

“California has a fairly robust regulatory system when it comes to guns,”  Barlowe said, “so California criminals have turned to ghost guns, interstate trafficking, and, of course, theft to source their firearms.”