Trace Every Crime Gun



Firearms tracing, which involves tracking the movement of a gun recovered by law enforcement from its first sale by the manufacturer to its first retail purchaser, is a key strategy for addressing gun violence.1Crime Gun Intelligence Centers, “Crime Gun Tracing,” accessed June 19, 2019,; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, “Firearms Tracing Guide: Tracing Firearms to Reduce Violent Crime,” November 2011, Tracing provides an understanding of the origins of a crime gun and can help law enforcement officials identify suspects and develop investigative leads, identify potential gun traffickers, and understand the source of crime guns.2CGIC, “Crime Gun Tracing”; ATF, “Firearms Tracing Guide,” 1-3. In the U.S., all firearms traces are conducted by the ATF’s National Tracing Center (NTC).3ATF, “Fact Sheet–National Tracing Center.”  In fiscal year 2018, the NTC processed more than 440,000 firearms trace requests.

When a local, state, or federal law enforcement agency recovers a firearm, the agency can submit a trace request to NTC electronically through the eTrace system.4ATF, “Firearms Tracing Guide,” 7. An “urgent” telephone trace request is accepted only in circumstances involving “sensitive or violent crime wherein need for trace results are immediate.” According to the NTC, traces for routine requests are completed in an average of nine days, and the goal is for “urgent” requests to be completed in less than 24 hours; ATF, “Fact Sheet–National Tracing Center.” Upon receiving the request, NTC uses records obtained from gun manufacturers, importers, wholesalers, and Federal Firearms Licensees (FFLs) to identify the path that the firearm has taken through its last purchase in a retail sale.5ATF, “Firearms Tracing Guide,” 1, 5-6; Megan E. Collins et al, “A Comparative Analysis of Crime Guns,” The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences 3, no. 5 (2017): 96-127. NTC then provides the agency with a trace summary that includes the firearm’s description, identities of the firearm purchaser and possessor, the amount of time between retail sale and recovery by law enforcement, information about the FFLs associated with the sale or transfer of the gun and an explanation of the trace finding.6ATF, “Firearms Tracing Guide,” 1. Although agencies have discretion regarding which crime guns they trace, requesting traces on all recoveries – also known as “comprehensive tracing” – can lead to more robust trace data that allows for identification of trafficking patterns and other investigative leads.7ATF, “Firearms Tracing Guide,” 6; Anthony A. Braga, “Long-Term Trends in the Sources of Boston Crime Guns,” The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences 3, no. 5 (2017): 76-95.


The information gathered from a successful gun trace can provide several benefits. For one, it can help law enforcement agencies solve and prosecute individual cases by linking suspects to firearms, proving gun ownership, and developing potential witnesses and investigative leads.8ATF, “Firearms Tracing Guide,” 1-3. Trace results can also help agencies better understand larger patterns of gun violence; for example, by linking crime guns to one another through common purchasers or recovery locations.9Ibid. Additionally, by revealing information about the sources of crime guns, tracing can help agencies identify potential traffickers and better understand the market for illegal guns.10Ibid.

Necessary Resources

ATF provides tracing services to law enforcement agencies at no cost.11ATF, “Firearms Tracing Guide,” i. To submit requests electronically using eTrace, an agency will only need a secure computer and access to the Internet.12ATF, “eTrace: Internet-Based Firearms Tracing and Analysis,” December 2009,

Strategy in Practice


Historically, law enforcement agencies requested traces only on select recoveries.13Collins et al., “A Comparative Analysis of Crime Guns,” 99, 104; Braga, “Long-Term Trends,” 77. This meant that firearms trace data may be biased to reflect only a particular subset of cases, which can undermine its usefulness in helping to understand the full scope of crime gun sources and patterns of violence.14Collins et al., “A Comparative Analysis of Crime Guns,” 99; Braga, “Long-Term Trends,” 77. ATF therefore encourages law enforcement agencies to engage in “comprehensive tracing,” which is when agencies routinely request traces of every crime gun recovered.15Braga, “Long-Term Trends,” 77; ATF, “Firearms Tracing Guide,” 6; CGIC, “Crime Gun Tracing.” According to ATF guidelines, “comprehensive tracing is the single most effective tool for identifying crime gun problems.”16ATF, “Firearms Tracing Guide,” 6. This is because comprehensive tracing helps to build more robust and representative data regarding the source of recovered crime guns and their movement through the distribution chain.17Braga, “Long-Term Trends,” 77; ATF, “Firearms Tracing Guide,” 6

Common Barriers

Incomplete and missing data: when gun traces are unsuccessful, it is often because there is not sufficient information to accurately identify and track the gun’s source.18Collins et al., “A Comparative Analysis,” 99-105, 121. A 2010 study found that of the 238,107 guns submitted to NTC for tracing in 2009, 61 percent  were successfully traced to a source state.

This may be due to factors such as identifying information about the firearm (e.g., serial number) being missing or destroyed; the dealer or manufacturer being out of business; the FFL’s failure to preserve the required paperwork or to keep track of their inventory; and inaccurate or incomplete information submitted by agencies on their trace request submissions.19Collins et al., “A Comparative Analysis,” 99-105; Sari Horwitz and James V. Grimaldi, “ATF’s Oversight Limited in Face of Gun Lobby,” Washington Post, October 26, 2010,

No national database of gun ownership: federal law currently prohibits the federal government from creating a national database of gun ownership, which can make the trace process more difficult and inefficient.20Horwitz and Grimaldi, “ATF’s Oversight.” Because there is no searchable, digital database of gun sales and purchases, traces are mostly done manually through reviewing handwritten records and conducting telephone calls to dealers and manufacturers.21Ibid. This lengthens the time it takes to complete the traces while reducing trace accuracy, creating a burden on law enforcement agencies conducting time-sensitive criminal investigations.22Ibid.

Difficult to track firearms in the secondary and illegal markets: gun traces track the movement of a recovered crime gun from its first sale by the manufacturer to its last retail purchaser.23CGIC, “Crime Gun Tracing.” Because the trace ends at the point of last retail sale, it can be difficult to obtain information about what happened to the gun if it subsequently entered the legal secondary market (e.g., it was sold in a private transaction, gifted between family members, etc.), or the illegal market (e.g., it was stolen, sold by an unlicensed street dealer, etc.).24Collins et al., “A Comparative Analysis,” 98.

Agencies, Organizations, and Other Necessary Partners

Firearms traces represent a partnership between ATF and federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. The process also relies on FFLs submitting required information regarding firearms sales.

What Else You Need to Know

One of the key tools in the firearms tracing process is eTrace, ATF’s electronic, web-based system for submitting trace requests. Law enforcement agencies can use eTrace to monitor the progress of their traces, retrieve completed trace results, and store trace information.25ATF, “eTrace: Internet-Based Firearms Tracing and Analysis.” The system also provides agencies with a historical database containing all of the agency’s trace information, giving it the ability to search prior traces, analyze historical data, and generate statistical reports.26Ibid. The benefits of using eTrace include: significantly reduced turnaround times for processing trace requests; improved trace data quality; and a more user-friendly system for submitting and monitoring trace requests.27Ibid.

Newsroom & Resources

  • ATF National Tracing Center Website

    The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) National Tracing Center (NTC) is the United States’ only crime gun tracing facility. NTC’s mission is to conduct firearms tracing to provide investigative leads for federal, state, local and foreign law enforcement agencies.

    Learn More

  • ATF Tracing Fact Sheet

    National Tracing Center Fact Sheet

    Read Fact Sheet

  • ATF Firearms Tracing Guide

    ATF’s guide to tracing firearms to reduce violent crime

    Read Guide

  • National Tracing Center eTrace Fact Sheet

  • Washington Post article on ATF’s limited oversight

    Washington Post (2010): ATF’s Oversight Limited in Face of Gun Lobby

    Read Article