Tracing of firearms through the ATF has been the subject of controversy. People with political agendas have intentionally skewed statistical results derived from traces and politicians who wish to abuse access to the traced process. Skewed statistics are best countered by educating the public and helping them understand that traces have no relevance to a gun dealer’s operations or the nature of a firearm. A combination of gun rights, civil rights and objective law enforcement organizations work to preserve the utility of traces by maintaining a balance of privacy rights to the efficacy of traces as a law enforcement tool. However, the tracing process continues to provide a highly beneficial mechanism to law enforcement and to the firearms-owning public.
There are many ways one may encounter a firearm and find need to trace it. It may be recovered at a crime scene, from a suspect or in similar conditions. It may be encountered peripherally in a case. A successful trace may reveal a stolen firearm or a firearm obtained through a straw purchase, or it may help develop a name as a lead in a case.
Firearms tracing has been an evolving procedure. Standardized markings, serial numbering and point-of-sale information collection was mandated by the Gun Control Act of 1968. It took many years of operation for records to amass to the point where they could be considered of value for tracing. It also took time for ATF to promulgate procedures for actually tracing firearm records, as well as establishing and managing records facility for storage of records from out-of-business manufacturers, importers, distributors and retailers. This latest incarnation, e-Trace records, may be traced in a day, a tremendous improvement over the month or longer it took a few years ago.
As with any other records search, the trace requires quality information collections. Some is beyond an officer's control. For example, the quality of information collected at the point of sale on an ATF 4473 form is dependent upon the sales staff. ATF's regulatory personnel have been working closely with the firearms industry to ensure quality, uniform information collection. Similarly, record keeping by purchasers varies. Some maintain records of the disposition of firearms, permitting tracking of a firearm in the post sale community. Others treat it with no more concern than a piece of house ware, and the trail of the firearm goes cold.
No trace can be successfully attempted unless law enforcement properly collects information. Currently, information is submitted to the national tracing center via ATF E-form 3312.1, revised January 2007. To ensure both quality tracing and optimum search results, its mandatory information must be completely collected.
Part I of the form includes submission date, a priority level and special instructions. A routine priority will generally get a result in a matter of days. An urgent priority will get immediate attention, with resources applied to hasten its completion. Justification is required for this (e.g., tracking a homicide firearm). The form instructions include a list of the most common justifications. Special instructions may be a request to not contact the point-of-sale FFL, where it may be advantageous to conduct this step locally.
Part II first provides for entry of an NCIC crime code. This four-digit code is a generic crime type. It also provides for entry of a project code. The instructions list a wide variety of NCIC codes, as well as project codes.
Parts III and IV provide for entry of information on the ATF agent or other law officer making the request. At times, to ensure information flows in, both parties work in a case, and both blocks may be completed. For local information, first enter the ORI number (NCIC/NLETS agency code). Complete the section with information on the investigator to who trace information should be returned.
The most important information will go to Part V--firearm information. Prior to 1968, firearms weren’t mandated to bear a serial number. As noted in the column on NCIC queries, a listed serial number must only list ″American″ numbers and letters. If the serial number has been obliterated, check the appropriate box. Even if readable or restored, Part IX will call for additional information.
As explained in the column on NCIC entries, identifying the manufacturer may be a confusing proposition. Recognize that the manufacturer will be different from the importer of a foreign produced a firearm. Prior to establishing American sites of their own, manufactures such as FN, Taurus and Beretta were imported by other firms. Post-1968 imports will reflect the correct importer, which will be engraved on the firearm, usually on the receiver, top of the barrel or bottom of the barrel near the muzzle. This information is vital for a quick and correct trace. The instruction sheet contains a code list for firearms types, easing this entry. Caliber may be confusing; a gun-savvy member of the agency may be a valuable resource.
The model becomes an important piece of information for a trace. Many manufacturers have many product lines, often with similar serial numbers, and the model will ensure the correct firearm is traced. Finally, a block permits listing of other identifiers or markings--a foreign-language serial number, a number applied by an agency or military for tracking--which may provide value in tracking.
Parts VI and VII permit entering information on the possessor of a firearm and also of an associate. A possessor isn’t especially a suspect or arrestee; they may also be a suicide victim or a third-party noncriminal from whom the firearm was obtained. An associate may be found to have other related searches, especially when a straw purchase is involved or the firearm is gang-related.
Firearms recovery information is noted in Part VIII. The date of recovery is mandatory; this gives a specific date as to when the firearm left circulation. Exact location may be found by a computer search to have relevance to other incidents, firearms or individuals.
Finally, Part IX provides for specific information on obliterated serial numbers. A serial number is the key to a successful trace. Knowing that a restoration is pending gives hope to a trace. A partial restoration may provide sufficient information to permit a trace that isn’t conclusive but may have investigative value.
Traces may be submitted to ATF via three methods. The slowest method is providing the information to a local ATF agent, who will then make the formal submission to the National Tracing Center in Martinsburg, W. Va. It may also be faxed to the NTC, cutting out the middleman. However, the most expedient method is an e-Trace subscription. In this, an Internet-based system permits a member of a registered agency to directly submit a request to the NTC, with a reply directed to the requester.
E-Trace provides the user with other benefits beyond speedy replies. It permits the local agency to manage its trace information, determine what requests remain unanswered, keep track of individual investigators requests, etc. It also permits an investigator to make detailed searches of the system, especially valuable when conducting investigations into straw purchases, possible dirty sources or even general analytical searches such as geographic citing of local resources.
Tracing Isn’t Perfect, But It’s Important
Pre-1968 transactions cannot be traced. Records are destroyed by floods, fires, etc. However, it provides the law enforcement community a valuable tool for both its use and to better serve its public. The strides ATF has made during a 20-year period have been tremendous in both speed of searches and the use to which the information may be put.
Firearms tracing has become a valuable tool of law enforcement. A trace may permit the physical trace of a firearm, from manufacturer through retail sale. It provides investigative leads when following
up on a recovered firearm. It may permit return of a stolen firearm where the victim failed to archive information or where the reporting agency failed to collect appropriate information for an NCIC entry. It also provides an important tool for dealing with straw purchases of firearms and for sourcing firearms recovered as throwdowns at crime scenes. It’s a research tool every law enforcement agency must take advantage of.