What is gun tracking?

What Is Gun Tracking?

If proposed, a federal registry of individual gun owners will literally put American citizens up in arms.

While that doesn't exist at the federal level, something sort of similar does: gun tracking.

Gun tracking is an aspect of criminal investigation. The weapon's serial number and characteristics are tracked by federal agencies back to its point of origin.

There is a carefully orchestrated system to establish how it works in the U.S. A next door neighbor can't just call up a local Federal Firearms Licensee (FFL) or law enforcement agency and ask where your handgun has been and who's owned it.

There's a bit more to it than that.

Gun Tracking Is Used To Trace One Thing: Guns Used In Crimes

Testing firearms to trace for crimes

There is only one federal organization authorized to track guns used in crimes, for example armed robbery: the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives National Tracing Center.

According to the ATF Firearms Tracing Guide, only foreign, federal, state, county, local and tribal law enforcement agencies may submit a firearm trace request to ATF when a U.S.-sourced firearm is recovered in a criminal investigation.

What are "U.S.-sourced firearms?" Well, they're either manufactured in or imported into the U.S.

There are four types of conventional firearms: pistols, revolvers, rifles and shotguns. But antique firearms qualify as well.

Once they become classified as a "crime gun," the ATF F 3312.1 National Tracing Center Trace Request form is submitted.

crime gun with scratched off serial number

A trace can be requested via "urgent" telephone call, physical form or through the online eTrace system.

So the procedure is purely through law enforcement agencies.

There are four types of results that can be yielded, and specific purposes for gun tracing.

What's The Point Of Gun Tracking?

What is the point of tracking guns

Asking the point of gun tracking is a fair question.

Why do it? What purpose does it serve?

There's an obvious, common sense answer.

"A firearms trace result summarizes the trail, through lawful commerce, taken by an individual firearm until its purchase by a non-licensed individual or entity in a retail sale," according to ATF.

There are four individual results that can be provided by the process:

  1. Origin: how the gun moved from point of sale to crime scene
  2. Ownership: who initially bought it?
  3. Criminal involvement: purchase information can be used in interviewing and prosecution
  4. Potential witnesses: the purchaser theoretically could lead to future witnesses during a crime investigation

The firearms trace process tells researchers where a firearm was entered into civilian ownership at FFLs. It can find "time to crime," which is the time between sale and potential criminal activity.

Example of an ATF Gun Tracing Report

Does gun tracking always work?


Law enforcement could provide an inaccurate description of the firearm in the process request. Serial numbers and other identifying markers can be filed off or otherwise obscured. If the firearm was manufactured prior to 1968, a request will also fail. A request on firearms that weren't manufactured in or imported into the U.S. will also yield a failed request.

How are firearms individually tracked though?

There are hundreds of millions of them.

Firearms trace requests for guns manufactured in the U.S. require the serial number, manufacturer name, city and state of manufacturer, model, and caliber or gauge. For firearms imported into the U.S., those criteria are required as well as importer's name and the city and state of the importer.

How many guns are actually traced annually by the ATF NTC?

Rounded numbers for calendar years in the US & US Territories:

  • 2011: 228,000
  • 2012: 156,000
  • 2013: 166,000
  • 2014: 170,000
  • 2015: 190,000

The NTC has traced firearms for the U.S. and 129 other countries.

We've written about other federal gun laws and topics. Here are a few related articles:

Jake Smith  

About The Author

Jake Smith (@notjakesmith) is a copywriter and photographer based in the Pacific Northwest who enjoys shooting pictures and ammunition outdoors.

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