There’s a lot of confusion in the firearms community on how the police trace a firearm. I wanted to do a write-up on how it works, based on publicly available information from ATF Publication 3312.9, 3312.7, and 3312.13, and the standard operating procedure required of me as an FFL. NONE of this is based in “well I heard” or “a cop once told me”. I am an FFL in Michigan and some states are more restrictive than Michigan. This information may be incorrect in those states that specify their own procedures on information regarding firearms.
First off, let’s discuss how your information is handled to begin with.
When you buy a firearm from an FFL, you fill out a Form 4473 (Firearms Transaction Record). Many FFLs have software to fill this out electronically but the information is all the same. Then, the FFL transmits your information to the FBI via the NICS (National Instant Criminal background check System). Everything I say regarding the NICS system is with the caveat that I have NEVER used the phone system to call in a background check. I know that many FFLs rely on the phone system but I use the internet system 100% of the time. Before I became an FFL, I noticed that FFL employees who called in a background check would often provide more information than the internet form asks for, and I have no idea if they were prompted for that information or not. The following information is transmitted:
First/Last/Middle name and suffix (called cadence by the FBI), if applicable.
State of Residence
State of Birth (but not the city you were born – oddly, the 4473 requires the city but the NICS system only allows entry of the state)
Height (optional in the NICS system but mandatory on the 4473)
Weight (optional in the NICS system but mandatory on the 4473)
Date of Birth
Social Security Number (optional on both the NICS system and the 4473 – I strongly recommend you do not provide this as it is not necessary and there is no reason to let your FFL keep your SSN in a poorly secured filing cabinet for 20 years.)
UPIN/AMD ID (If you don’t know what this is then it doesn’t apply to you)
Ethnicity (which is a term the FBI applies toward whether or not you consider yourself Hispanic or not)
Race (which is where you get to choose out of a list of non-hispanic races)
Country (or countries) of citizenship
The number on your driver’s license or other form of ID provided that meets the requirements for ID
Then a set of checkboxes where the FFL marks whether the transfer involves a pistol, long gun, or “other”, and whether it is a sale, pawn transaction, or if the FFL is facilitating a private sale (only applies to states that require this)
That’s it. That’s entirely it. The FFL does not immediately provide the FBI with information on what gun you bought, how many guns you bought, your home address, or even the expiration date on your ID. With one exception.
If you buy more than 1 handgun within 5 consecutive business days from the same dealer, that dealer is required to fill out an ATF Form 3310.4, “Report of Multiple Sale or Other Disposition of Pistols and Revolvers”. More than 1 handgun, within 5 consecutive business days, from the same dealer. That is it. If you receive 1 handgun, that report does not happen. If you receive 2 handguns 6 days apart, that does not happen. If you receive 2 handguns on the same day from 2 different dealers, that report does not happen. “Sale from the same dealer” is more accurately “the dealer who does the background check”. So if you buy 2 handguns from 2 different gunbroker sellers and have them shipped to the same dealer and pick them up on the same day, you have (as far as the requirements of this report are concerns) bought multiple handguns from that dealer. All dealers are required to perform this report, but most won’t tell you about it, because it scares buyers off. One copy of this report is kept in the dealer’s records, one copy of the report is mailed to the local police (or if you don’t have a police department, your local sheriff’s office, or if you don’t have either, your state police), and one copy is mailed to the Department of Justice’s National Tracing Center at 244 Needy Road, Martinsburg, WV. The 3310 contains more detailed personal information, as well as the make/model/serial number/caliber of the multiple handguns you receive.
4473s are retained by your FFL for 20 years, or, if they relinquish their license in less than 20 years, then the 4473s are sent to the ATF’s Out-Of-Business Records Center upon relinquishing their license.
The final bit of information the FFL retains about the transaction is in their “Bound Book”, the logbook of every firearm they have transferred. In this book, the make/model/serial/type/caliber, date received, who it was received from (whether an FFL or person), date it was “disposed of” (transferred to someone else) and who it was transferred to (whether an FFL or a person).
Now that we’ve brought up the National Tracing Center, let’s dive into firearms tracing.
Firearms tracing is the systematic tracking of the movement of a firearm recovered by law enforcement officials. Firearms are traced to attempt to link a suspect to a criminal investigation, to identify firearms traffickers (and straw purchasers), and to detect patterns in the sources and kinds of crime guns.
To this end, the NTC has a system called eTrace, where any law enforcement agency can submit a tracing request in the normal course of their criminal investigation.
How the tracing program works, is the ATF contacts the manufacturer of the firearm and obtains information on what wholesaler the firearm was originally sent to. Then, the ATF contacts that wholesaler and obtains information on which FFL the firearm was sent to. Then, the ATF contacts that FFL and obtains information on who bought the firearm. If that FFL is out of business, the original trace will fail and the LE agency must submit a “Records Search Request” for the ATF’s Out-Of-Business Records Center to check the records they have. Certain firearm manufacturers, importers, and wholesalers maintain an electronic database of this information that the ATF can search without having to bother any employees of the business, called the “ACCESS 2000” program. Local law enforcement is encouraged to create a “comprehensive tracing” program and trace every single firearm they recover.
The federal government really only operates this program with the goal of finding the first retail purchaser of the firearm, as the “Time To Crime,” the time between the first retail sale of a firearm, and when it shows up in an evidence room, is relatively low. Apparently, criminals prefer brand new guns. However, local police often take the information provided by the NTC trace and continue to try following the paper trail. When this happens, it is usually in an effort to tie a suspect to a firearm found at the scene of a crime.
So there you have it. That’s the full extent of how much information is immediately provided to the government, and what information is only available if they call the FFL and find out. A lot of people come in to do a transfer with me and have bought into the rumors hook, line, and sinker, on what the government is “watching” you for. I even had a guy come in and pick up a Mini-14 because he thought he was less likely to be on a watchlist if he bought that over an AR-15. Fortunately, all the government knows is that I ran a background check with his information and “long gun”. They currently have virtually the same information on him as they do on the guy who showed up one day and bought twelve AR-15s.
Hopefully this was informative to you!