Rapid Tracing of Firearms

Ian Argent is surprised by how quickly the police turned the trace around for a country where registration is supposed to be illegal. The truth is that this country has had a form of registration since 1968. The concept of the registry created by the Gun Control Act of 1968 is that given a particular gun, the police can quickly find the last legal owner, but they could not find out whether a particular person did, or didn’t own guns, nor could they find out how many guns that person owns. But for the purposes of tracing a gun to a person, this country already has registration.

Up to the 4473, those records are already largely computerized. To find out which dealer a particular gun was sold to doesn’t take ATF any time at all. None of the big manufacturers or distributers are doing A&D records by hand anymore, and I wouldn’t be surprised if ATF has direct access to this data without a person having to be involved. Once the dealer has been identified, the question is whether that dealer is in business. If not, then it’s just a quick call over to the big ATF vault in West Virginia where all the 4473s of defunct dealers are sent, and put on microfilm. ATF is forbidden from computerizing these records by law (because that would make a registry, where they could link people to guns, in addition to linking guns to people). If the dealer is still in business, I believe all that is required is to send over a trace request, the dealer looks up the 4473, and there you have the trace. If the gun was sold more than 20 years ago, and the dealer lawfully destroyed that record, the trace fails at that point. Traces to fail rather often, as dealers are only required to keep records for 20 years, and the records in West Virginia are likewise sometimes incomplete.

But that’s why the trace can happen so quickly. It doesn’t take a whole lot of manual labor to accomplish one. Generally speaking, the amount of time it takes for a dealer to retrieve a 4473, or for an ATF agents in West Virginia to do the same from their files. You’re talking a matter of hours, not days or weeks.

7 thoughts on “Rapid Tracing of Firearms”

  1. My understanding was that ATF could only usually trace to the first legal owner, unless that owner can point the ATF to whoever they transferred the gun to.
    If not, even if the gun went through another FFL, it would be difficult to know which FFL to check.

    1. Yes… that’s the case. It can trace to the first legal buyer. Beyond that, even transfers through FFLs aren’t really relevant for the purposes of the tracing system.

  2. “and I wouldn’t be surprised if ATF has direct access to this data without a person having to be involved.”

    ATF has access to the manufacturers distribution records through ACCESS 2000. Most manufacturers use this system. There are few manufacturers that actually have to use a person to find out which FFL a firearm was sent to. After finding which FFL a firearm was sent to, ATF contacts that FFL and either a computer search is done, or a manual search through 4473’s. Many times a trace can’t be completed because the FFL recorded the wrong S/N on the 4473. This is why FFL’s sometimes have ‘missing’ firearms during inspections.

    Sometimes ATF doesn’t even have to involve the FFL. ATF maintains several databases with owner information. Multiple gun sales database is one. If a trace is initiated on a firearm that is part of a multiple gun purchase, ATF will already have the information for the first purchaser. The Suspect Gun Database is another database that ATF manages. If an FFL suspects that a firearm purchase is suspect, he can notify AFT and the purchaser information is added to this database. ATF maintains the Stolen Gun Database as well. These are firearms that are stolen from FFL’s and shipping companies. FBI maintains a stolen gun database as well, but that database is for firearms stolen from non FFL holders. The FBI database also has the information for the LAST legal owner, not the first.

    In addition to the ATF receiving a copy of the Multiple gun sales report, the CLEO receives a copy as well and a copy is maintained by the FFL. The CLEO is required by law to destroy his copy within 20 days and certify in writing, every six months, that information contained in the report hasn’t been disclosed to anyone else, unless there was a criminal investigation. The FFL is required by law to keep this multiple sales report for 20 years, attached to the 4473. The ATF is required by law….doesn’t matter.

  3. I guess I should have put on my shocked face somewhere in that post, or some other indication of sarcasm. I’ve heard enough people noting that the 4473 system is a weak form of registration.

  4. When my guns were stolen in a burglary back in 2001, the police were able to have a complete list of my firearms, along with serial numbers, faxed to them in minutes. There were a few handguns on the list that I had sold previously, but for the most part is was an accurate list. Again, they called either the ATF or the PA State Police (I’m not sure which) with nothing more than my name and they had that fax sent to them in minutes.

    A few years prior to that, I had a Mini-14 that I traded in to a gun shop. Some time after that I was contacted by the police because I was the last known owner that they could trace the serial number to so they needed me to tell them where I traded it in. The detective told me that the rifle had been confiscated from some kid and not to worry about getting into trouble.

    1. The PA State Police have been keeping electronic records of sale for years, so they have a more complete inventory of what you have, and can look up your name and cross reference guns you’ve bought. State law was supposed to make that illegal, but the Supreme Court ruled the law allowed it as long as it wasn’t a complete registry.

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