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What ATF Gun tracing is about

There is only one federal facility authorized to run gun serial number checks to trace firearms recovered at the scene of a crime.

Why should you care about this and why does it matter?

The ATF National Tracing Center provides a trail of public records filled with data that can piece together a better understanding of guns recovered at the scene of a crime.

ATF Gun Trace And What It Does

The reason the ATF primarily conducts gun traces starts with the Gun Control Act of 1968, which authorizes the U.S. Attorney General to administer firearms tracing.

The attorney general delegated the ATF as the sole federal agency authorized to trace firearms.

No matter caliber or category, firearms may only be traced if they have been used or suspected to have been used in a crime.

According to ATF data, in 1988 there were just 48 trace requests to the NTC from various federal, state, local and foreign law enforcement agencies.

In 2015, that increased to 373,349 trace requests.

Fiscal year trace requests

These requests from law enforcement agencies are filtered through multiple programs that the NTC coordinates.

  • eTrace 4.0: this web database provides an online system for over 6,000 law enforcement agencies, including 43 foreign countries and over 40,000 registered law enforcement officers. Electronic firearms tracing requests are submitted with their respective details and subsequently handled by the NTC.
  • FFL Theft/Loss Program: FFLs are required by law to report to the ATF within 48 hours of discovering a theft or loss firearms inventory. From these reports, the ATF develops investigative leads when these firearms are later found and reported to the ATF.
  • Interstate Theft Program: The ATF fields reports of theft and loss of firearms in interstate shipments by interstate carriers.
  • Obliterated Serial Number Program: The ATF provides forensics service in the positive identification of firearms with partially removed serial numbers.
  • Out-of-Business Records: When FFLs go out of business, they are legally mandated to send the NTC all firearms transaction records. Curious about how much they receive? About 1.2 million per month, and since 1968 they have "several hundred million" and the ATF says it's the only system of its kind across the globe.
  • Records Search Requests: When firearms are recovered and the ATF is contacted to trace the firearm, often the firearm may have been purchased from a now defunct FFL. The ATF then searches its out-of-business records for any leads.
  • Multiple Sales Programs: FFLs must report the sale of two or more handguns sold to the same purchaser within five consecutive business days. This information is used by the ATF to potentially detect illegal firearms trafficking.
  • Access 2000 Program: The NTC provides software and hardware to manufacturers to track a firearm in a serial number query. The software tracks the firearms and which distributors and retailers they are transferred to. Although the data is the property of FFLs and is not housed at the ATF, the NTC has 24/7 access in connection to firearms requested by a law enforcement agency to be traced in a criminal investigation. First purchaser information is not collected.
  • Demand letter program: There are three categories of demand letters sent to FFLs for varying requests from the NTC.

Now those demand letters are important to consider, particularly "demand letter 2."

This is sent by the ATF to FFLs who've had 10 or more guns traced to them in the prior calendar year with a "time-to-crime" of three years or less.

The FFL is then required to send information about "used" guns acquired in the previous year, "including the manufacturer/importer, model, caliber or gauge and serial number along with the acquisition date...The FFL is required to submit this information quarterly, and until informed otherwise."

"Time-to-crime" data can provide a lot of insight that isn't widely discussed.

NTC Gun Serial Number Checks And The Information It Provides

An NTC gun serial number check will identify several points of data to assist in bona fide criminal investigations involving a respective make, model and serial number.

Please note that these statistics only identify firearms recovered, and not those in circulation.

Data points help determine what category of conduct it was recovered in and multiple other realms that may aid law enforcement.

Here are some key takeaways from the data that can be reviewed online:

Calibers recovered in 2016

In total, there 289,223 firearms recovered from every state and U.S. territory in 2016.

Here are the totals of each caliber recovered in descending order:

  1. 9mm: 67,160
  2. .22 Cal: 35,814
  3. .40 Cal: 34,184
  4. .380 Cal: 24,616
  5. .45 Cal: 22,844
  6. 12GA: 19,755
  7. .38 Cal: 19,293
  8. .357 Cal: 9,354
  9. .25 Cal: 7,439
  10. 7.62mm: 6,542
  11. .32 Cal: 6,316
  12. Unknown: 4,639
  13. .223 Cal: 4,258
  14. 20GA: 3,581
  15. 5.56mm: 3,339
  16. .44 Cal: 2,299
  17. .30-06 Cal: 1,783
  18. .410 Bore: 1,751
  19. .30-30 Cal: 1,619
  20. .308 Cal: 1,348
  21. .45 Cal/.410 Bore: 998
  22. MULTI: 923
  23. .270 Cal: 831
  24. 10mm: 702
  25. .30 Cal: 663
  26. 16GA: 634
  27. .50 Cal: 611
  28. .243 Cal: 596
recovery of caliber by year

The ATF states an additional 141 calibers accounted for 5,331 firearms recovered.

Here are the top ten states with their respective number of recovered firearms in descending order:

Those numbers come from a total of all recovered firearms in that year — 289,223.

However, there are separate data sheets for totals of firearms recovered in one state and sourced from another.

This total is reflected in data sets for firearms that have been recovered and sourced — 211,384.

The number of recovered and subsequently sourced firearms correlate somewhat to the flat number of recovered firearms in the top ten states:

All Firearms Collected In Criminal Investigation

  • California: 38,200
  • Texas: 24,448
  • Florida: 19,236
  • Georgia: 13,902
  • North Carolina: 12,561
  • Illinois: 12,340
  • Ohio: 10,191
  • Tennessee: 9,709
  • Pennsylvania: 9,076
  • Arkansas: 8,655

The source state is statistically most likely to also be the recovered state.

For example, 81.7 percent of firearms sourced to their first point of sale, whenever that may have been, in a Texas retailer were recovered in Texas in a 2016 investigation.

The next few states in that list show this number being respectively 91.2 percent in California, 77.3 percent in Florida and 69.3 percent in Georgia.

Firearms Sourced Back To First Purchase

  • Texas: 19,905
  • California: 18,504
  • Florida: 15,645
  • Georgia: 12,864
  • North Carolina: 9,385
  • Virginia: 9,112
  • Ohio: 8,755
  • Arizona: 8,203
  • Pennsylvania: 7,505
  • Indiana: 7,224

What about so-called "time to crime"?

There is some data available for how much time it takes for a firearm to be sold at a retailer and subsequently be involved in a crime.

The national average is 9.79 years for the firearms the NTC has traced to be involved in criminal conduct, according to ATF data. Note that this is just the average based on the firearms they have entered in their records for that year, not on all firearms in circulation.

That average time in years is decreasing based on public record.

In 2015, it was 10.48. In 2014, 10.88. In 2013, 11.08. In 2012, 11.12.

However, the years in time-to-crime numbers radically change and fluctuate depending on the source state and recovered state.

For example it took one firearm sourced to Arizona and recovered in 2016 in New Hampshire 42 years to be involved in a crime. In another case, one firearm sold in New Mexico took about 46 years to be recovered in a 2016 Wyoming investigation.

firearms tracked for time to crime

But it took one firearm recovered in 2016 in North Dakota just shy of two years to be involved in a crime after being sold in Maine.

There is a vastly larger proportion of firearms sold that take more than three years to be recovered and traced than those that end up in crime in under 3 months.

And all of that is a key determination of just how much data is available, and how much people can twist and present it to serve their respective argument.

For example, according to data on the categorical situations in which firearms were recovered in 2016, 12 guns were collected at abortions.

About 10,545 firearms were recovered under the category "carrying a concealed weapon."

There were four guns collected in 2016 due to election laws.

There were 11 guns in 2016 collected in a criminal investigation wherein one was teaching others how to use explosives.

The top five categories for firearms collected:

  • Possession of weapon: 72,433
  • Firearm under investigation: 47,436
  • Dangerous drugs: 28,422
  • Found firearm: 25,862
  • Weapon offense: 20,076
Gun tracing in the ATF

Beyond that, the national average age of the possessor of recovered firearm is 35 years old.

Of the data available for possessors from whom a firearm was recovered in an investigation and who have a birth date on file, the totals on the right were found in 2016.

What does this all mean though? Why do you need this data?

  • 17 and under: 7061
  • 18 to 21: 23601
  • 22 to 24: 22127
  • 25 to 30: 37816
  • 31 to 40: 42168
  • 41 to 50: 23120
  • Over 50: 27717

Knowing And Tracking Federal Gun Serial Number Check Data

Federal gun serial number check data is inherently flawed because it does not completely include the entire picture.

Records indicate only the first purchaser in sourcing data.

But, they cannot account for the volume of lawful private sales after that, which diminishes a crucial portion of any data: context.

And speaking of private sales, there are a number of privately ran databases wherein a serial number can be checked prior to purchase to see if the firearm was stolen.

The 289,223 recovered firearms in 2016 account for .081 percent of the total 357 million approximated by The Washington Post to be in the U.S.

The point is this:

Be wary.

This post isn't to regurgitate numbers ad nauseam until you feel one way or another.

What should be understood is that this data is available for anyone involved in any debate on the matter of gun tracking.

The resources are there and it doesn't take a news reporter or some guy on a blog to find them.

In fact, just to prove that, here are downloadable excel sheets from the ATF for a number of the topics presented here for 2016:

About The Author

Jake Smith gun blog writer