Firearms Tracing (police)


Firearms gun tracing is the systematic process of tracing a crime-related firearm recovered by a law enforcement agency from its manufacture or importation through the chain of distribution to first retail sale of the firearm to a private citizen. For an overview of firearms tracing, see Firearms Tracing.

Civil Liability Litigation

Relatively recently civil liability litigation has been introduced as a policy approach that is intended to reduce the damage inflicted by firearms and increase the responsibilities of gun manufacturers (Cook and Ludwig 2002). The use of litigation as a tool to influence the gun industry began with the high-profile lawsuits against asbestos and tobacco companies, which proved to be profitable and effective at influencing asbestos and tobacco companies (Butterfield 1998; Kairys 1998; Barrett 1999; Bogus 2000). The early lawsuits have central themes, based on grounds of traditional tort to attach liability through strict products liability, strict liability for abnormally dangerous activities, and negligence (Bonney 2000).

Partially in response to this type of litigation, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (Public Law No. 109-92) was enacted into law in October 2005 to limit the civil liability for gun manufacturers, distributors, dealers, and importers for damages resulting from the misuse of their products by others. At this time it is still unclear how this particular policy approach will proceed.


The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) enforces federal firearms laws and regulations, as well as providing support to federal, state, and local law enforcement officials in their efforts to reduce violent crime and terrorist-related crimes involving firearms (ATF n.d.a). For example, the ATF’s Strategic Plan for Fiscal Years 2004-2009 identifies firearms tracing as a key resource in the agency’s program to reduce violent gun crime, stating that the ATF will ”assist the law enforcement community in identifying firearms trafficking trends and resolving violent crimes by providing automated firearms ballistics technology, tracing crime guns, and developing advanced firearms trafficking investigative techniques” (ATF n.d.b, 4). Crime gun tracing is the systematic process of tracing a crime-related firearm recovered by a law enforcement agency from ”its source (manufacturer/ importer) through the chain of distribution (wholesaler/retailer) to the individual who first purchases the firearm” (ATF 2000, A-4).

The Legal Context of Firearms Tracing

The legislative mandate for ATF to trace crime-related firearms is the Gun Control Act of 1968 (GCA), which establishes a set of requirements that allows any given firearm to be traced from its manufacture or import to its first sale by a retail dealer. The GCA mandates that each new firearm, whether manufactured in the United States or imported, must be marked with a unique serial number. In addition, the GCA requires all federally licensed firearms dealers (FFLs), including manufacturers, importers, distributors, and retail dealers, to maintain records of all firearms transactions, including whole/retail sales and shipments received.

The GCA also requires FFLs, in response to a request for trace information, to provide details from transaction records to the ATF. The GCA also mandates that the ATF can perform an audit of an FFL’s transaction records once during a twelve-month period to ensure compliance with record-keeping requirements of the law. Finally, when an FFL goes out of business, the GCA requires the FFL to transfer its transaction records to the ATF, which stores them for the purpose of tracing. In essence, the GCA established a set of record-keeping procedures that allows the ATF to trace firearms to first-time retail purchases (Pierce and Griffith 2005). In 1994, Congress further required firearms manufacturers and FFLs to respond to a firearms trace request within twenty-four hours (27 C.F.R. Part 178, Sec. 178.25a).

In addition to establishing requirements for the collection of firearms trace procedures, Congress also passed legislative mandates that regulate how the ATF manages firearms trace information. Specifically, Congress passed restrictions prohibiting the ATF from consolidating or centralizing records of receipt and disposition of firearms maintained by FFLs. For example, ATF’s fiscal year 1979 appropriation provided (Federal Register 1978) that ”no funds appropriated herein shall be available for administrative expenses in connection with consolidating or centralizing . . . the records of receipt and disposition of firearms maintained by federal firearms licensees.”

The Firearms Tracing Process and the National Tracing Center

In order to provide investigative leads, the National Tracing Center (NTC), a division within the ATF, conducts crime traces (of firearms recovered at crime scenes and from youth or other persons prohibited from possessing firearms) from any federal, state, local, or international law enforcement agency (ATF, n.d.b). Requests for traces may be submitted by telephone (for high-priority/urgent requests), fax, mail, or electronically.

Figure 1 presents a flowchart of the basic firearms tracing process (from Pierce and Griffith 2005). The tracing process begins with a law enforcement agency’s submission of a trace request to the NTC for a crime-related firearm recovered by their agency. The law enforcement requestor must submit one of two forms before a trace can be initiated: Form ATF F 3312.1 ( for standard crime gun trace requests or form ATF F 3312.2 ( for crime guns with an obliterated serial number or where there has been an attempt to obliterate the serial number. These forms require information regarding the firearm type (for example, pistol, revolver, shotgun, or rifle), manufacturer, caliber, serial number (unless obliterated), importer (if the gun is of foreign manufacture), the location where recovered, the criminal offense associated with the recovery, and the name and date of birth of the firearm possessor.

Each firearm trace request is assigned to an NTC firearms tracing program specialist. The information is first checked against an index of manufacturers and firearms serial numbers contained in the records of out-of-business FFLs that are stored by the ATF against the records of multiple handgun purchases reported on an ongoing basis by FFLs, as well as against records of weapons reported stolen by FFLs. If the firearm does not appear in these databases, the firearms tracing specialist contacts the manufacturer or importer and tracks the recovered crime gun through the distribution chain (the wholesaler and retailer) to the first retail sale dealer. If the dealer, wholesaler, or manufacturer is still in business, the dealer is asked to examine its records to determine the identity of the first retail purchaser. Data on traced firearms are entered into the Firearms Tracing System (FTS), a database system maintained by the NTC that manages the data on all prior firearms trace requests, multiple sales records, and reports of firearms stolen from FFLs that have been submitted to and processed by the NTC (Pierce and Griffith 2005).

Flowchart of the basic firearms tracing process.

Figure 1 Flowchart of the basic firearms tracing process.

The tracing process necessitates that the NTC communicate with many different organizations across the nation from both the private and public sectors and from the federal, state, and local levels of government. During fiscal year 2003, the NTC received more than 280,000 firearms trace requests from law enforcement agencies. In the course of conducting these firearms traces, the NTC communicated with approximately seven hundred different firearms manufacturers, 46,000 separate retail and wholesale firearms dealers, and 6,500 individual law enforcement agencies or units. In addition, information was collected on 203,933 crime gun possessors. The average time to complete a trace varies with this workload, ranging from twelve to seventeen days for routine traces in recent years (Pierce and Griffith 2005).

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