The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) National Tracing Center (NTC) is the United States’ only crime gun tracing facility. The 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.
The NTC is located in Martinsburg, West Virginia, approximately 90 miles from Washington, D.C. Pursuant to the Gun Control Act (GCA) of 1968, the U.S. Attorney General is authorized to administer firearms tracing. The Attorney General has designated ATF the sole federal agency authorized to trace firearms. The NTC is only authorized to trace a firearm for a law enforcement agency involved in a bona fide criminal investigation. The firearm must have been used, or suspected to have been used, in a crime. Crime gun trace data is essential to law enforcement efforts to combat violent crime and firearms trafficking.
The NTC processed more than 440,000 trace requests in fiscal year 2018. The goal of the NTC is to complete traces classified as “Urgent” in less than 24 hours. Traces classified as “Routine” are completed within nine days on average. The law enforcement agency submitting the trace request determines the trace classification.
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.
In fiscal years 1988-2018, the NTC conducted traces as outlined below:
This web-based, bilingual (English and Spanish) firearms tracing system is available to accredited domestic and international law enforcement agencies to assist in the tracing of U.S.-sourced firearms. eTrace is a paperless firearms trace request submission system and interactive trace analysis tool that provides an electronic exchange of crime gun incident-based data in a secure, web-based environment. Through eTrace, law enforcement agencies can electronically submit firearms trace requests, monitor the progress of traces, retrieve completed trace results and query firearms trace-related data. eTrace includes analytical and download capabilities for ATF's firearms trace information, including selective field searches and statistical reporting.
eTrace has registered more than 6,850 law enforcement agencies, including agencies in 45 foreign countries. The eTrace system currently has approximately 50,000 individual law enforcement user accounts.
Federal Firearms Licensee (FFL) Theft/Loss Program
Federal firearms licensees (FFLs) are required by law to report to ATF the theft or loss of firearms from inventory within 48 hours of discovery.
The NTC receives these reports from FFLs. The NTC is able to develop investigative leads when any of these firearms are subsequently recovered and traced by law enforcement. Each year, thousands of firearms are reported as lost or stolen.
Interstate Theft Program
The NTC maintains the Interstate Theft Program. The NTC manages reports of theft or loss of firearms from interstate shipments. Since Feb. 11, 2016, stolen or missing firearms must be reported as a theft/loss to local authorities and to ATF within 48 hours of discovery by the shipping FFL as per 27 CFR Part 478, [Docket No. ATF 40F; AG Order No. 3607–2016] RIN 1140–AA41, Commerce in Firearms and Ammunition—Reporting Theft or Loss of Firearms in Transit (2007R–9P). Interstate carriers, non-FFLs and consignees can make such reports on a voluntary basis (it is not a mandatory legal requirement). The NTC provides a standard form and process by which the shipper, carrier and/or consignee can report such losses. Under the program, hundreds of reports of thefts and losses from interstate shipments are received, managed and disseminated to ATF offices around the country for investigation each year. Further, the 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.
FFLs that discontinue business are required by law to send all firearms transaction records to the NTC. Out-of-business records are integral in the firearms tracing process. The NTC receives an average of nearly 2 million out-of-business records per month. 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.
Records Search Requests
ATF utilizes out-of-business FFL records to assist in the investigation of firearm thefts when incomplete identifying information is available. Each year, ATF receives thousands of such requests from law enforcement jurisdictions where an individual firearm owner has no record of the firearms identifiers and 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 Programs
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 Connect Program:
The NTC Division oversees the NTC Connect Program (formally referred to as Access 2000 or A2K), which leverages a cloud based platform for storage of firearm descriptive and disposition data. This service is provided free of charge to manufacturers, importers and wholesalers who maintain electronic Acquisition and Disposition (A&D) records. NTC Connect provides a secure internet-based user interface, through which authorized NTC personnel can readily 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 NTC Connect 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 the 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
The 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 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 2 is sent 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 3 is issued monthly to assist ATF in its efforts to investigate and combat the illegal movement of firearms along and across the southwest border of the U.S. 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.