The Untraceables

An important component to the ATF data, in addition to where the firearms trace to, and the time-to-crime, is exactly how many traces don’t resolve to any particular state. There are a few reasons this could happen. The firearm could have been smuggled into the country from overseas. The firearm could have been purchased prior to 1968, when the feds started requiring dealers to keep form 4473. Dealers are only required to hold 4473 for twenty years. A gun that gets sold, but stays with its legal owner for twenty years before being stolen or sold might fail to trace. Let’s take a look at Pennsylvania and some of the other surrounding states, and states of note, and see exactly how many traces don’t go anywhere.

  • Pennsylvania traced a total if 9092 firearms in 2006. Only 5607 guns were traced back to a specific state of origin. 38% of firearms traced failed to trace back to a state of origin.
  • New York traced 11893 firearms in 2006. Only 6085 traced back to a state of origin. 48% of firearms traces identified no state of origin.
  • New Jersey traced 3543 firearms. Only 1878 traced back to a state. 46% of firearms traced identified no state of origin.
  • Delaware trace 1023 firearms in 2006. 585 identified states of origin. 42% of firearms traced in Delaware had no identifiable state of origin.
  • Maryland trace 7025 firearms in 2006. 4156 identified states of origin. 40% of firearms traced in Maryland had no identifiable state of origin.
  • West Virginia traced 984 firearms in 2006. 628 traced to a state. 36% of firearms traced had no identifiable state of origin.
  • Ohio traced 8627 firearms in 2006. 5695 traced to a state. 33% of traces could identify no state.
  • Massachusetts traced 1644 firearms in 2006. 974 traced to a state. 40% of all traces could identify no state of origin.
  • California traced a whopping 21223 firearms in 2006. States were identified in 11274 of them. 46% of all traces in California failed to identified any state.

These aren’t small numbers folks. In very significant numbers of cases, firearms are not being traced back to a legal source. Remember, the ATF tells us not to draw any conclusions from this, but when the anti-gunners start talking about what a huge problem trafficking is, such a huge problem, in fact, that we must pass one-gun-a-month, show them this. And if that doesn’t work, tell them this:

  • Pennsylvania’s time to crime average is 9.50 years. 16% in first year.
  • New Jersey’s time to crime average is 11.52 years. 10% in the first year.
  • Maryland’s time to crime average is 10.95 years. 11% in the first year.
  • West Virginia’s time to crime average is 9.29 years. 16% in first year.
  • New York’s time to crime average is 12.00 years. 8% in the first year.
  • Delaware’s time to crime average is 11.45 years. 14% in the first year.
  • California’s time to crime average is 12.70 years. 12% in the first year.
  • Virginia’s time to crime average is 8.34 years. 22% in the first year.

We’re told what a huge problem straw purchasing is by the anti-gun crowd. So much so, in fact, that they suggest we need to ration gun purchases. Virginia has one-gun-a-month, and has one of the highest time-to-crime rates of any state. What this would indicate is that the black market in guns is fed largely by existing supply, which has been in the black market for quite some time. It would suggest that more laws restricting the legal market in firearms would not have much of an effect on the black market supply of guns.

32 thoughts on “The Untraceables”

  1. Yes… it’s the amount of time that elapsed between the firearms retail purchase and when it was recovered in a crime.

  2. Back in the 1980’s some guys in Britain tried to estimate the illegal weapon population there from its’ “death rate” (the number of guns being surrendered or otherwise ending up with the authorities).

    They concluded that as there was no decline visible over a large number of years, that the “mortality” rate had not significantly reduced the population.

    The number of guns removed from that illegal population was simillar to the number of legally held guns.

    They therefore concluded that the illegal population far exceeded the legal population.

    The guns that seem to make the news headlines in Britain now are not grandad’s war suvineers, they are the best available, and probably come in by the container load, just as the drugs do…

    I’ll believe that gun controls are starting to bite when the crooks start using home baked guns. So far that seems a long, long way off ( if ever – pigs will fly before then), and the black market seems to be thriving.


  3. I don’t disagree, Keith. One overlooked factor is that criminals don’t have much incentive today to smuggle guns into the country. Make guns illegal, and they will, and there are plenty of places around the world to get them.

    Even home grown guns can be made that are actually of reasonable quality. A decent submachine gun is a relatively easy technology to reproduce with simple equipment.

  4. The factor which interested me most was was the chart showing the reason for the trace. Contrary to the Brady Bunch claiming that each trace indicates some serious crime, in most states the majority of the reasons were illegial possession and found firearm.

  5. The time-to-crime numbers will, of course, also be affected by the “untraceable” numbers right? If you can’t trace the gun back to a retail purchase, then you can’t make a time-to-crime assessment either. So those time-to-crime numbers could be pretty far off. In fact, you might assume that guns that are specifically acquired for trafficking would be those most likely to be rendered untraceable–by removing the serial number. Overall, the data are frustratingly scant on this. How many recovered guns have had their serial numbers removed? We should have exact numbers on that. Why don’t we?

  6. Firearms with removed serial numbers probably wouldn’t be traced. I think you need the serial number to initiate a trace request with the ATF. There are ways to lift the serial number, but I wouldn’t imagine the police opt to do that very often. Firearms with serial numbers filed off are not uncommon, actually. It’s a crime to be in possession of a firearm with an altered or obliterated serial number in Pennsylvania.

  7. It’s my understanding that removing the serial number is also a federal crime.

  8. No serial number, no trace, right? I don’t think we can totally foreclose on the idea that there could be some impact on the black market gun supply by limiting gun purchases to one or two or however many per month without knowing something more about the 30-50% of untraced (untraceable?) guns. In some states, we know almost nothing about the source of almost half the recovered guns! If serial-number removal is very common, then I would expect there might be ‘entrepreneurs’ out there running networks of straw buyers, grinding off the serial numbers and making a tidy profit on ‘clean’ guns. I mean, it seems plausible, right?

  9. It’s plausible, but does it happen? If someone buys more than one gun in a five day period, that has to be reported to the ATF under the current law. In Pennsylvania, there’s also a requirement that multiple sales get reported to the sheriff of that county as well. My argument against the one-gun-a-month thing, other than there’s no good data to show it would be effective, is that straw buying is already a felony, and the ATF already gets notified if someone buys more than one gun in a short period of time.

    In addition, any private transfer of a handgun in Pennsylvania that doesn’t involve a licensed dealer or a Sheriff as an intermediary, to conduct the paperwork and the background check, is a felony. It seems to me that there’s already an awful lot of laws on the book to combat the straw purchasing problem.

    So I think it’s possible that multiple straw buy rings exist, but there hasn’t been any good data to show how big the problem is, and no one has offered a good explanation as to why the existing laws aren’t working to punish people doing it.

  10. I can’t seem to find any data about multiple purchases that get reported to ATF or for the state of PA. And I can’t find any references to how often straw-purchase charges are brought or convictions succeed. I’m going to have to keep looking. Obviously I’m not widely-read on this subject because I’m just discovering the Tiahrt amendment now. I’ve looked at some of the stuff on the NRA site and elsewhere here at SIH, but I’m interested in a sort of concise recitation of the arguments against the release of ATF trace data. I assume one is the fear that gun dealers would be unfairly targeted (which seems to have happened in a couple of cases already) and the other is that civil cases would be brought against gun makers which might effectively run them out of business. Are those the main concerns that have motivated Tiahrt, or are there other biggies? Thanks for indulging one of the uninitiated.

  11. The main reason the police union and ATF are against releasing it is to protect investigations. The main reason the NRA is against releasing it, is because cities in the past have used it to sue manufacturers and dealers who aren’t necessarily breaking the law because of trace data. The ATF has also been rather pissy about people drawing conclusions from it, and so probably wouldn’t be too pleased with me for doing it either, though I understand why none of my conclusions are scientific or even all that valid.

    I think the kind of data the ATF is releasing here is fine, as long as they keep putting the big disclaimer on it. I can understand why general access to it could compromise investigations. Mayor Bloomberg doesn’t like it, but going after interstate trafficking is what the ATF does for a living, and is kind of beyond what New York City should be getting involved in.

  12. Practically speaking, it is almost impossible to competely remove the serial numbers from a firearm. Even in cases where the numbers have been “filed” or otherwise effaced, they can be brought back into readable condition. “No numbers, no trace” is a nonstarter.

  13. That’s not true in all cases, and that assumes that the police are going to pay a lab to lift the serial number. Since most traces aren’t initiated because of a serious crime, I doubt they are doing serial number restoration on any significant number of firearms. So for practical purpsoes, no serial number will mean no trace.

  14. It seems obvious that not all the firearms that are legally sold [not on a ‘black market’] will end up in ATF’s listings. A huge number of firearms are simply sold by one individual to another, with no paperwork involved. I guess I am missing something here…

  15. That’s true. What the trace gives you is the last person to buy the gun at retail. It doesn’t lead you to the last person who possessed the gun.

  16. “In addition, any private transfer of a handgun in Pennsylvania that doesn’t involve a licensed dealer or a Sheriff as an intermediary, to conduct the paperwork and the background check, is a felony.”

    So if one’s father dies, one cannot simply go and get his father’s firearms, which was the father’s wish?
    One must curtsey to the Police State that keeps an illegal gun registry?

  17. Its pretty easy to recover the serial number – both because it usually occurs in multiple places (and is only removed in one) and also because of the way serial numbers are put on the guns it doesn’t take much to expose them after they’ve been scratched off.

    If a gun comes in with a scratched out serial number, they are going to send it in to get the number. For a bureaucrat, a paper work type violation like that is even worse than murder since it goes straight to the reason for their very existence.

    Also, I don’t understand your time to crime numbers. Are you saying nearly a quarter (22%) of guns sold in Virginia end up being traced within a year?? That doesn’t sound right, especially if the average time is 8+ years from purchase for gun’s traced. If it did, it would validate what the Blooming idiot is claiming.

  18. It is indeed 22% Of 4870 traces that fit that category, 1110 were sold less than a year prior. The mean is still 8+ years.

  19. I’m working off a crude spreadsheet here, but it looks like there is a range in the percentage of recovered guns that are successfully traced from as low as 37% in Iowa to as high as 72% in Indiana. An unweighted average for the country is 60%. It’s a crude approximation, but roughly 40% of all guns recovered in this country are either not traced or not traceable. Do you think that’s because police don’t place a high priority on completing the traces, or is it because those guns are untraceable (because they’re too old, too corroded, had serial numbers removed.) Or does ATF have this data and just not release it? I’m curious if people have any intuitions about what makes up the bulk of that 40%…

  20. Traces aren’t completed by police, they are completed by manufacturers, distributors and dealers. All FFLs are required to keep records of their firearm transfers is a book called “Acquisitions and Disposition Record”, dealers, additionally, are required to keep form 4473 that the customer fills out when he purchases a firearm at retail, in addition to checking the person’s criminal record with the background check system.

    What a trace does, is the ATF goes to the manufacturer or importer with a trace request, then they find out who the manufacturer or importer sold it to. It goes down the chain until you get to 4473. 4473 is the record of the sale at retail. Once you have that information, the trace is completed. The ATF can investigate further with the person who bought the firearm at retail, but that’s outside of a trace. Any FFL must comply with an ATF trace request. There’s no choice in the matter. It’s a condition of having the license. If you get a trace request, and the information that should be there isn’t, you’re in trouble. Dealers have to keep 4473 for 20 years. A&D records have to be kept for 20 years as well. If a dealership goes out of business, they have to submit all their 4473s and A&D books to the ATF.

    For type 03 FFL, license collectors, we don’t have to turn our A&D book into ATF if we let our license lapse, but I do believe you’re still required to keep it.

  21. The manufacturer/importer is determined by the markings on the gun. Importers are required to stamp their importer marks, and sometimes ATF compliant serial numbers onto the firearms they import. Sometimes the serial numbers that foreign manufactures put on their guns is enough to satisfy ATF. For old firearms, this isn’t always the case. My World War II Russian Mosin-Nagant rifle has it’s own importer serial number in addition to one added when it wa made by the manufacturer. If you can find an old World War II gun with no importation markings (indicating it was brought back by a soldier as a war trophy) they are highly valuable.

  22. I suspect most traces don’t complete because they are too old (either more than 20 years since they were sold at retail, or were sold prior to 1968), or because they were smuggled into the country.

  23. Thanks for this description of the mechanics of how a trace happens. I couldn’t find a simple description of that process. The Bryan Miller piece from the 24th makes the claim that only 30% of guns recovered from crimes in NJ. Can that really be true? In those cases, the police simply aren’t initiating the process with ATF. If older guns are often used in crimes, do you suppose PDs simply make a judgment that this or that gun is too old to trace and don’t initiate on that basis?

  24. It could be a reason to decide not to initiate a trace. If you recover a firearm that was manufactured or imported prior to 1968, the chances that will trace successfully are pretty low. The other reason is it will tell you the last legal owner, which probably isn’t very useful for a lot of black market recovered guns. ATF might be interested in it for the purpose of looking at trafficking, but a local PD doesn’t have the jurisdiction, typically, to go after trafficking.

  25. I don’t understand the 1968 date. Doesn’t the 20 year sunset on maintaining 4473s mean that anything older than 1987 is now untraceable?

  26. There are four major federal gun laws:

    National Firearms Act of 1934 – Created a tax provision for machine guns, sawed off shotguns, short barreled rifles, suppressors, created federal licensing of dealers.

    Gun Control Act if 1968 – Expanded licensing for dealers. Created classes of people not permitted to purchase or possess guns. Prohibited non FFLs from moving firearms in interstate commerce by common carrier with limited exceptions. Made it illegal to buy guns out of state. I could write a book about it.

    Firearms Owners Protection Act of 1986 – Took care of some of the major complaints about GCA 68. Long guns can be bought out of state now. There are travel provisions that override state law. New Machine gun registrations are banned, ironically, given the act’s title.

    Brady Act of 1994 – Established waiting periods for purchase and background checks. Waiting periods expired upon the creation of the National Instant Check system.

    There’s a lot more to it that this, but the reason 1968 is important is because it created the 4473 and A&D requirement, and thus made tracing possible. The 20 year sunset does mean anything under 1987 could fail a trace without someone being in trouble (but not necessarily, since dealers are only required to keep them for twenty years. Some keep them going farther back, and dealers that go out of business fork over their 4473s to ATF, and I doubt the ATF is throwing them away). A gun sold at retail before 1968 will generally not be capable of being traced at all.

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