Chicago and Illinois have relatively strict gun laws; there are no licensed gun retailers within city limits. Yet rates of gun violence remain high. The gun lobby consistently uses this contradiction to argue that restrictive gun purchasing and ownership laws don’t work. That argument starts to fall apart when you recognize that 60% of guns used in crimes in Chicago are trafficked from other states, particularly neighboring Indiana, which requires no permits, registration, or background checks for purchases.
A new report from the gun violence prevention organization Giffords shows this same dynamic is currently at play in U.S. territories, particularly Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI). Those territories themselves have relatively strict gun laws, but their gun death rates are astronomical, higher than any mainland state. The report aims to highlight the problem of guns making their way from states with lax gun control to territories, particularly because violent crime rates in U.S. territories get much less attention compared to the states. Giffords hopes to raise awareness among legislators about the need to tighten regulations in origin states, and to improve monitoring and community intervention in the territories.
Gun death rates on these islands are staggering. In 2018, the gun homicide rate in Puerto Rico was 19 per 100,000, a rate four times higher than the national average, and almost double that of the highest state rates, in Mississippi and Louisiana. In 2020, the rate of gun homicides in USVI was 50 per 100,000, more than 8.5 times that of the national average.
Both Puerto Rico and USVI have relatively strict gun laws. To possess a firearm, USVI residents need a license granted by the islands’ police commissioner. Many are ineligible, including people previously convicted of a crime or domestic violence offense, individuals known to struggle with addictions to controlled substances, and individuals with certain mental health conditions. Virgin Islanders can also carry guns in public only if doing so is related to their official duties, like law enforcement or the armed services.
Compare that to a state such as Texas, where no state permit or registration is required to purchase a firearm, and where there are no background checks that would pick up mental health or domestic violence issues. It’s also an open-carry state, where residents can carry rifles and handguns without a license. In fact, only three states—Illinois, Massachusetts, and New York—technically require a license to own firearms (and New York’s law doesn’t apply to long guns). The District of Columbia has a strict registration law but suffers from much the same dynamic with neighboring states. Studies have consistently shown that weak gun laws contribute to increased gun violence, not just in those jurisdictions but clearly also within neighboring ones.
Because of the tight laws in the territories, it’s fairly difficult to buy guns legally there. (Puerto Rico’s previously strong laws were diluted slightly by a change in 2020 influenced by the National Rifle Association, after which background checks, an indicator of legal purchases, shot up by 134%.) Still, only 13% of guns recovered by law enforcement in Puerto Rico were originally bought there. The rest are from the “underground illegal gun market,” says Alex Nguyen, research manager at Giffords, who authored the report. Some 30% of guns recovered came from Florida, and 24% from Texas, followed by Ohio and Georgia, all of which have relatively weak gun laws. Similarly, in 2020, the USVI was the second-leading importer for firearms in the U.S.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives tracks recovered guns used in crimes back to their original dealers via their serial numbers. Two-thirds of such guns are initially sold in states with weak gun laws. It’s incredibly easy for guns to simply be carried over borders, such as from Indiana to Illinois; similarly, there are patterns of guns traveling from the South to New York and New Jersey, and from Arizona and Nevada to California.
Trafficking isn’t the only reason for the high rates; other factors include police corruption in Puerto Rico. What’s more, gun data is hard to come by. For mainland states, a relatively reliable source is the mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, broken down by cause of gun death, such as homicide, suicide, or accident. USVI lacks such a system, meaning the authors had to extrapolate gun deaths from scant homicide reports. That also makes it harder to push for solutions. “When we don’t have good data, we can’t really send people out to investigate why this is a problem,” Nguyen says.
Still, access to guns is a major factor in the violence. The report makes the case that laws should be tightened in origin states, not only for their own populations’ sake, but for the knock-on effects. “When states regulate their legal gun market, their illegal gun market shrinks in size and influence,” Nguyen says, adding: “The trends in gun safety legislation in one state can really impact the surrounding states.” Ghost guns—those assembled via kits and not containing serial numbers—are also turning up in the territories. One trafficking anecdote details how a USVI couple bought $60,000 worth of gun parts from North Carolina and Florida, assembled them, and shipped them around the island.
Most recent gun reform victories have been at the state or city level, but for more comprehensive change, including eliminating travel from state to state (and territory), the U.S. needs to pass federal legislation such as universal background checks. The federal government could also invest more in community intervention programs on the islands, supporting organizations like Taller Salud in Puerto Rico, which modeled its violence prevention program on Cure Violence, a successful gun violence prevention program in Chicago.
The territories have long been less of a priority for the U.S. government than the states—an argument that animates statehood activists in Puerto Rico. “To me, it is a matter of status,” Nguyen says. “They don’t enjoy the same rights and privileges as states.”