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.
Firearm tracing provides critical information to assist domestic and international law enforcement agencies investigate and solve firearms crimes; detect firearms trafficking; and track the intrastate, interstate and international movement of crime guns. All firearms traced must have been used, or suspected to have been used, in a crime.
The Tracing Process
Firearms tracing begins when a law enforcement agency discovers a firearm at a crime scene and seeks to learn the origin or background of that firearm in order to develop investigative leads.
Tracing is a systematic process of tracking the movement of a firearm from its manufacture or from its introduction into U.S. commerce by the importer through the distribution chain (wholesalers and retailers), to identify an unlicensed purchaser. That information can help to link a suspect to a firearm in a criminal investigation and identify potential traffickers. Firearms tracing can detect in-state, interstate and international patterns in the sources and types of crime guns.
ATF processes crime gun trace requests for thousands of domestic and international law enforcement agencies each year. It also traces U.S.-sourced firearms recovered in foreign countries for law enforcement agencies in those countries.
Traces classified as “Routine” are completed within seven to ten days on average. The law enforcement agency submitting the trace request determines the trace classification.
eTrace is web-based firearms tracing system available to accredited domestic and international law enforcement agencies to assist in the tracing of U.S.-sourced firearms.
FFL Theft/Loss Program
Each year, thousands of firearms are reported as lost or stolen from federal firearms licensees (FFLs). FFLs are required by law to report to NTC any theft or loss of firearms from their inventory within 48 hours of discovery. If any of these firearms are recovered and traced by law enforcement, NTC helps develop investigative leads.
Interstate Theft Program
NTC maintains the Interstate Theft Program that oversees stolen or missing firearms that are reported as a theft/loss within 48 hours of discovery by the shipping FFL. Under the program, NTC receives and manages hundreds of reports of thefts and losses from interstate shipments, and disseminates the reports for investigation. Interstate carriers, non-FFLs and consignees can make such reports on a voluntary basis (it is not a mandatory legal requirement).
NTC is able to develop investigative leads when a firearm reported stolen or lost is recovered and traced by law enforcement, or when recurring patterns are discovered in the reporting of thefts.
Obliterated Serial Number Program
ATF provides serialization and other firearms identification forensics expertise to assist in the positive identification of firearms when serial numbers have been partially obliterated or have been partially restored.
The Obliterated Serial Number Program allows law enforcement agencies to identify recovered firearms whose origins have been masked by serial number destruction or alteration. ATF uses the information to identify firearms trafficking patterns and related crimes.
Out-of-business records are integral in the firearms tracing process. FFLs that discontinue business are required by law to send all firearms transaction records to NTC who received an average of 5 million out-of-business records per month.
ATF utilizes out-of-business FFL records to assist in the investigation of firearm thefts when incomplete identifying information is available. Since 1968, ATF has received several hundred million such records and its Out-of-Business Records Repository is the only one of its kind in the world.
ATF receives thousands of Records Search Requests from law enforcement jurisdictions where an individual firearm owner has no record of the firearms identifiers or the FFL from whom the owner purchased the firearm is no longer in business. These records have proved pivotal in other criminal investigations.
Multiple Sales Program
FFLs are required by statute to report to ATF the sale of two or more handguns to the same purchaser within five consecutive business days. These reports, when cross-referenced with crime gun trace information, serve as an important indicator in the detection of illegal firearms trafficking. They also allow successful tracing of older firearms that have re-entered the retail market.
NTC oversees the NTC Connect Program (formally referred to as Access 2000 or A2K), which stores firearm descriptive and disposition data. This free service is available to manufacturers, importers and wholesalers who maintain electronic Acquisition and Disposition (A&D) records.
NTC Connect provides a secure web-based application through which authorized NTC personnel can send a query by serial number only against an FFL's electronic firearm disposition records and retrieve the corresponding disposition data (if applicable). The data remains the property of the FFL and is not housed at ATF.
Participation in the program is voluntary and can reduce the FFL's costs associated with providing a response to firearm trace requests. At the same time, this program benefits NTC by providing immediate access to a participant's firearm data on a 24/7 basis, thereby allowing for operations to continue outside of normal business hours and leading to improved response times in completing firearms trace requests for law enforcement agencies engaged in criminal investigations.
Demand Letter Program
NTC is responsible for issuing various demand letters, which ensures that it collects FFL data vital to the success of the firearms tracing process.
Demand Letter One
Demand Letter 1 is issued to FFLs who do not comply with their statutory responsibility to respond within 24 hours to firearm trace requests. The FFLs who receive Demand Letter 1 are required to send ATF their A&D records for the past three years, and to continue to send the records on a monthly basis until told otherwise. The information submitted allows ATF to trace firearms if the FFL continues to be uncooperative with requests.
Demand Letter Two
Demand Letter 2 is issued to FFLs who had 25 or more firearms traced to them the previous calendar year with a “time-to-crime” of three years or less. The affected FFLs are required to submit limited information regarding “used” guns acquired the previous year, including the manufacturer/importer, model, caliber or gauge and serial number along with the acquisition date. No names of owners are submitted. The FFL is required to submit this information quarterly and until informed otherwise.
The used gun information received as a result of Demand Letter 2 enables ATF to trace any used guns sold by FFLs under demand. Without such information, ATF would not be able to link the secondary market firearm to the dealer.
Demand Letter Three
Demand Letter 3 is issued to FFLs monthly. This assists ATF in its efforts to investigate and combat the illegal movement of firearms along and across the United States’ southwest border.
Licensed dealers and pawnbrokers in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas are required by ATF to report all transactions in which an unlicensed person acquired, at one time or during five consecutive business days, two or more semi-automatic rifles larger than .22 caliber (including .223/5.56 mm) with the ability to accept a detachable magazine.