Facts About Firearm Policy Initiative

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MYTH: Firearm registries never helped solve a crime


  • Researcher John Lott claims that a firearm registration has never helped solve a crime, specifically referencing Chicago, Washington DC, Hawaii, and Pennsylvania.
  • According to Giffords Law Center, “[s]ix states and the District of Columbia require registration of some or all firearms. Hawaii and the District of Columbia require the registration of all firearms, California maintains a database of gun transfer records, and New York requires the registration of all handguns through its licensing law. Hawai’i, New York, and four other states also have a registration system for certain highly dangerous firearms, such as assault weapons. These states generally ban such firearms, but allow the continued possession of grandfathered weapons if they were owned before the ban was adopted and are registered.” 
  • Chicago does not have a firearm registry, but a 2017 report by the Chicago Police Department and Mayor’s Office argued that a firearm registration system would help investigators identify violent criminals and protect lawful gun owners.
  • Pennsylvania law prohibits a firearm registry, but Pennsylvania State Police maintains a database of handgun sale records that is used daily by law enforcement to solve firearm-related crimes.
  • Hawai’i, the only state that requires all firearms to be registered, consistently has the lowest or second lowest gun death rate in the country. Both the Hawai’i Police Department and Hawai’i Attorney General’s office told GVPedia that firearm ownership and transfer information are used daily to assist in solving crimes and conducting threat assessment for officers serving warrants, executing evictions, and responding to domestic violence calls. (Letter from Hawai’i Police Department Chief Paul K. Ferreira to Nick Wilson of GVPedia, March 15, 2021)
  • GVPedia directly reached out to Washington, DC officials for specific cases in which their registries solved a crime. We are waiting for a response.

Lott’s Claim:

In his 2020 book Gun Control Myths, Lott calls firearm registration systems a “lazy device for writers to solve crimes.” In the book, Lott argues that crime guns are rarely left at the scene, that crime guns are rarely registered to the perpetrator, and that police in Chicago, Hawaii, DC, Pennsylvania, and Canada “can’t point to any crimes that have been solved as a result of registration.” These claims with similar wording also appeared in his 2016 book, The War on Guns.

In a March 23, 2019 TribLive opinion piece, Lott claims that firearm “registration hasn’t worked in Pennsylvania or other places.” Lott supports this claim by referring to a 2001 lawsuit where he says the Pennsylvania State Police “could not identify a specific crime that had been solved through the registration system from 1901 to 2001, though they did claim that it had ‘assisted’ in a total of four cases but they could provide no details.” In that op ed, Lott also cites a 2013 deposition with the Washington, DC Police Chief and a 2000 Hawai’i State Senate hearing with the Honolulu Police Chief where they could not immediately recall a specific crime being solved with registration records. Lott posted much of the same language on his website two weeks later, and adds the claim “the real Chicago police have also been unable to point to real cases where registration has solved crimes.”

Lott had a slightly different position in his 2003 book The Bias Against Guns, where he argued “Registration laws may help the police solve crimes involving guns by providing them access to ownership records, but they drain police resources from other law enforcement activities…”

The Facts:

Lott specifically mentions law enforcement in Chicago, Pennsylvania, DC, and Hawai’i as being unable to point to a single crime solved as a result of firearm registration; however, Chicago and Pennsylvania do not have a registry. In the U.S., only Hawai’i and Washington, DC maintain a registry system of all firearms. California does not have a traditional registry but maintains a central database of gun transfer records that functions similarly to a registry. New York requires registration of handguns but not long guns.

A 2001 study by Dr. Daniel Webster, Dr. Jon Vernick, and Dr. Lisa Hepburn concluded, “States with registration and licensing systems appear to do a better job than other states of keeping guns initially sold within the state from being recovered in crimes.”

A 2015 study by Dr. Garen Wintemute and Dr. Daniel Webster found that the “share of crime guns that originated from in-state retail sales in states with both [permit-to-purchase] policies and handgun registration was, on average, 37 percentage points lower relative to the comparison states lacking either policy.”


Chicago does not require registration of firearms. A 2017 report by the Chicago Police Department and Mayor’s Office details why a firearm registration system would help investigators identify violent criminals and protect lawful gun owners:  

“A system to track lawful firearm transfers leading up to the illegal sale into the secondary market would greatly improve firearm investigations and help identify violent criminals. It would further protect lawful gun owners who never intended for their firearms to enter into the illegal gun market from unwarranted inquiry or investigation. 

“A firearm registration system to track firearm transfers from one lawful owner to the next would provide an invaluable tool to investigators attempting to trace crime guns back to criminals. Importantly, it would take those who lawfully purchase guns at FFLs and sell them to legitimate buyers on the secondary market out of the investigation. If multiple transactions did in fact take place from the initial point of sale, law enforcement could proceed from the last lawfully recorded transfer. This would provide a substantial benefit to not only crime investigators, but also responsible gun owners who properly assess potential buyers before selling off a firearm on the secondary market. Further, it would aid in readily identifying straw purchasers whose firearms are purchased at an FFL for immediate sale into the illegal market, thus diminishing the flow of guns to violent criminals who use them in furtherance of senseless gun crimes.”


Pennsylvania state law prohibits a firearm registry. The closest thing Pennsylvania has to a registry is a database of handgun sale records maintained by the Pennsylvania State Police. In a February 2, 2021 email to GVPedia, Pennsylvania Chief Deputy Attorney General for Gun Violence Brendan O’Malley wrote:

“State, local and federal law enforcement actively uses the Pennsylvania State Police’s handgun record of sale database on a daily basis to solve firearms related crimes and gun trafficking. Here is just one example from last week.

Important to note there is not a firearm registry in Pennsylvania as that is prohibited specifically by law, but there is a searchable database of handgun sales and transfers which is a treasure trove of information for investigators to investigate illegal gun transfers.”

A September 2020 Philadelphia Inquirer article specifically mentions the handgun database as helping law enforcement dismantle a gun trafficking network linked to multiple shootings. Anthony McCrary purchased 35 guns over a two month period for the trafficking network led by three teenagers who were prohibited from purchasing guns. According to the article, “After checking the state’s electronic database of gun sales, they linked McCrary to what they described Thursday as an ‘alarming number’ of purchases from stores in Montgomery and Bucks Counties and Philadelphia.”

Pennsylvania’s database of handgun sale records helped identify a gun trafficking operation by Daniel Lucas who purchased 36 handguns to sell to others. According to a November 2020 Philadelphia Inquirer article, Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin Steele’s office “began its investigation in September, when a routine scan of gun-purchasing records revealed Lucas’ surprising number of transactions, which the prosecutor said bore the ‘hallmark signs of straw purchasing.’”


Hawai’i is the only state that requires all firearms to be registered and consistently has the lowest or second lowest gun death rate in the country. In a March 15, 2021 letter to GVPedia, Hawai’i Police Department Chief Paul K. Ferreira wrote, “In response to your inquiry about whether the firearms registration process in Hawai’i County has been used to solve crimes or has resulted in prosecutions, firearm ownership or transfer information can lead to evidence that is vital to the prosecution of a crime. 

“Firearms checks are used on a daily basis to confirm ownership of firearms recovered during the execution of search warrants, of firearms routinely found in the possession of suspects who are wanted for crimes, and firearms located within vehicles during traffic stops. Having the ability to access a person’s firearms information prior to arriving at a domestic violence type call can provide vital information for threat assessment and officer safety. Being able to verify the ownership of a firearm or where it has been transferred to have led to multiple calls for service being solved to include burglaries, theft and violent crimes.” 

In a February 24, 2021 email to GVPedia, the Criminal Justice Division of the Department of the Attorney General of Hawaii wrote, “Hawaii requires a person seeking to purchase or acquire a firearm to apply for a permit from the police chief to ensure that the person acquiring a firearm in Hawaii is qualified to possess the firearm. In addition to obtaining a permit, Hawaii mandates the registration of all firearms purchased or acquired in Hawaii, transported into Hawaii, assembled from parts, or transferred from one person to another. As an added safeguard, Hawaii requires owners to report when a firearm is removed permanently from the State. This comprehensive system creates a record of the transaction(s) transferring ownership of the firearm, whether it be a pistol or revolver, or rifle or shotgun. The law also requires the transferor to verify that the recipient has obtained a permit to acquire a firearm, and, also to verify and record the identity of the recipient. Each county police department maintains its records of firearm transactions for its respective county, and all county police departments have statewide access to firearm information.

“Hawaii’s firearm permit and registration system provides information to law enforcement agencies and the courts that assist in solving crimes and promoting public safety. By requiring each transfer of ownership to be documented, the county police departments may be able to trace the ownership of a firearm involved in a crime. Firearm ownership or transfer information can lead to evidence that is vital to the prosecution of a crime.

“The courts routinely order that firearms are to be surrendered by persons who have been disqualified from ownership of firearms upon being charged with or convicted of felonies and certain misdemeanors, including domestic violence offenses. Also, a restraining or protective order, particularly a domestic violence protective order or gun violence protective order, will prohibit the possession of firearms. Law enforcement officers serving the protective order can verify whether the person being served owns firearms and account for its surrender. Additionally, when law enforcement serves warrants or execute evictions, the firearm registry can provide vital information for threat assessment and officer safety.”

Washington, DC

GVPedia directly reached out to Washington, DC officials for specific cases in which their registries solved a crime. We are waiting for a response.


John Lott, “Pa. gun registry waste of money, resources,” TribLive, March 13, 2019
John Lott, “Television Show Bias Against Guns: The Constant False Claims That Gun Registration Being Used To Solve Crime,” Crime Prevention Research Center, April 4, 2019 
John Lott, Gun Control Myths, 2020
John Lott, The War on Guns, 2016
John Lott, The Bias Against Guns, 2003
Daniel Webster, Jon Vernick, and Lisa Hepbrun, “Relationship between licensing, registration, and other gun sales laws and the source state of crime guns,” Injury Prevention, 2001
“Gun Trace Report,” City of Chicago Office of the Mayor, 2017
“Registration,” Giffords Law Center (accessed February 7, 2021) 
Jeremy Roebuck, “Philly-area teens ran a trafficking network that put dozens of illegally bought guns on the streets, authorities say,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 24, 2020
Vinny Vella, “West Philly man traveled to 8 counties, buying 36 guns he illegally sold to others, DA says,” Philadelphia Inquirer, November 10, 2020 
Daniel Webster and Garen Wintemute, “Effects of Policies Designed to Keep Firearms from High-Risk Individuals,” Annual Review of Public Health, March 2015

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