Using the make, model, and serial number of a firearm to identify its owner without relying on a firearm registry.

How are Guns Traced?

Gun traces are a time-consuming and laborious process, and they are only successful about half the time.

Presumably, a trace begins with a firearm recovered as evidence. The manufacturer and serial number are identified from the firearm. Unless the gun was manufactured without a serial number, which was legal before 1968.

The manufacturer is contacted. The manufacturer looks up the serial number in their records. (Serial numbers may not be unique across models, so the model of the firearm may also need to be identified.) The manufacturer’s records reveal who received the gun from the manufacturer. This is normally a distributor. Unless the manufacturer’s records are incomplete and missing for that serial number.

The distributor is contacted. The distributor’s records reveal who received the gun from the distributor. This is normally a licensed dealer. Unless the distributor’s records are incomplete.

The dealer is contacted, or more likely, an ATF or FBI agent visits the dealer, to examine the dealer’s records.

Let’s talk about the dealer’s records. When a gun is purchased from a licensed dealer, the buyer fills out ATF Form 4473. The dealer contacts NICS for an instant background check, providing information about the buyer from the form. By law, NICS is prohibited from retaining this information. It is only retained on the written form. The dealer is required to keep the form for at least 25 years. If the dealer goes out of business, they must ship the forms to be stored by the ATF. They are not in a database, and they are often not even organized. Someone must examine each form in a stack of forms to find the one being sought. If the gun was transferred more than 25 years ago, the dealer isn’t obligated to retain the records.

At the end of this, the buyer who bought the firearm from the dealer is identified. More or less. The buyer may have moved, and they may not have provided a social security number. Thus, an exercise may be required to determine the buyer’s current whereabouts.

The buyer may be dead.

The buyer may have sold the gun. Guns being a commodity that tend to keep their value, selling used guns is a common practice, and the used gun market is considerable. Private owners are not required to keep records when they sell a gun, and most do not. They might remember who they sold the gun to, especially if it was to a local dealer. In most states, a private owner is not required to sell to a dealer, and a private party sale does not require a background check.

If the agent conducting the trace is lucky, the next buyer in the line is identified, and they haven’t moved, and the agent can contact them. This process will repeat for each sale of the gun.

The gun may have been stolen. Since this is a common way for guns to be acquired for use in crimes, this is a common dead-end for a gun trace.

How Useful are Gun Traces?

The answer really has to do with the kind of criminal involved. A smart criminal isn’t going to leave behind a gun that can be traced back to them. Thus, criminal investigators will be conducting traces in two categories: untraceable guns, and criminals who aren’t smart.

I think it’s fair to say that there are plenty of criminals who aren’t smart. That doesn’t mean they will go buy a gun from a licensed dealer with the intent of committing a crime and then leave it at the scene of the crime. They might buy a gun from a dealer and then later decide to commit the crime. They might not have intended for the gun to be found.

It’s also true that not many cases will be broken by the success of a gun trace. More often, prosecutors hope to use a gun trace as additional evidence in a case.