clear Section IV: Strategies To Interrupt Sources of Illegal Guns


Through analysis of their gun violence problems, communities have found that limiting the sources of both illegal and legal guns enables them to reduce the number of illegal guns in their neighborhoods, thereby reducing criminal access to weapons and the related assaults, injuries, and deaths. Important to their efforts is comprehensive tracing of the guns through the U.S. Department of the Treasury's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) National Tracing Center (NTC). Crime gun tracing and trace analysis can link crime gun sellers, purchasers, and possessors across jurisdictions, including identifying suspects who may be serving as "straw purchasers" for those who are linked to gun trafficking and firearm violence. Purchasers and dealers of large numbers of crime guns over extended periods of time can be tracked through gun crime data bases.

Gun Tracing

ATF established NTC to trace firearms used in crimes and recovered at crime scenes.1 Crime gun tracing is the "systematic tracking of firearms from manufacturer to purchaser for the purpose of aiding law enforcement officials in identifying suspects involved in criminal violations, establishing stolen status, and proving ownership."2 The volume and efficiency of NTC trace operations have significantly increased since 1993, when it responded to 55,000 requests for traces with a response time of 13 days. During 1996, NTC responded to 133,000 trace requests in an average response time of 9 days. In 1997, NTC traced 194,000 crime guns.3

To initiate a trace on a gun used in a crime, the requesting agency, typically a local police department, furnishes firearm, possession, and incident description information to NTC. Firearms without at least a partial serial number cannot be traced, although ATF and many police laboratories have the capacity to restore obliterated serial numbers. NTC communicates the trace request to the gun manufacturer, who is required to provide the name of the wholesale/retail distributor and the date of transfer. The chain of wholesale/retail transactions is then followed to the extent possible from point of sale to the first retail purchaser. Further investigative tracing of crime guns is at the discretion of NTC and dependent on the significance of the individual investigation and the availability of special agent resources.

Two functions of gun tracing

Firearm tracing serves two primary functions. First, tracing enables law enforcement officials to reconstruct the history of a firearm associated with a crime. This traditional, incident-driven trace may lead to the apprehension of suspects, the identification of potential witnesses, and the discovery of other persons who may be associated with the crime under investigation. The trace may also reveal evidence for other cases and disclose crimes that previously had been undetected.

A 1998 amendment to 18 U.S.C. § 923(d)(1) requires Federal firearms licensees to make trigger locks or lock boxes available for sale on their premises. Failure to comply can result in revocation of the dealer's license (see 144 Cong. Rec. H11044­03; 1998 WL732765).

The second emerging function of firearm tracing is the identification of patterns of illegal gun trafficking. Gun tracing can facilitate development of predictive indicators for trafficking schemes at an early stage in their life cycles. For example, patterns of partially or completely obliterated serial numbers of firearms, multiple sales of firearms to purchasers and subsequent short time to crime, patterns of thefts from Federal firearm licensees (FFL's), and multiple traces to the same FFL's or purchaser are highly significant predictors of gun-related crime. By examining patterns in aggregates of traces, gun tracing can help identify opportunities for intervention on the supply side of illegal firearm markets. Such intervention can then reduce further trafficking and associated violent crime. Already, ATF's Project LEAD, an automated data system that tracks illegal firearms, is identifying recurring patterns of illegal firearm suppliers both in the United States and across international borders and providing evidence for prosecution.

Integrated Ballistics Identification System

The Integrated Ballistics Identification System (IBIS) has also been implemented by NTC. IBIS is the first computer identification system that correlates and matches projectile and shell casing ballistic evidence in a national data base. Now local law enforcement can fire recovered weapons and enter digitized information from the
BRASSCATCHER, one element of the IBIS
system, stores images of cartridge cases

bullet that will provide "fingerprint" evidence for all other bullets fired from it. When a suspect is linked to a gun, IBIS can quickly determine if bullets fired from that gun can be linked to other crimes. With every recovered gun, projectile, or shell casing, the data base -- and the potential for individual criminal prosecution -- grows.

The programs described in this section incorporate crime gun tracing as a valuable crime-fighting tool, whether as the primary violence suppression activity or as part of a broader strategy. In some of these efforts, ATF agents take the lead in increasing local crime gun-tracing initiatives; in others, they provide technology and resources as part of a team that is spearheaded by State, county, or local enforcement agencies.

Inspection and Investigation of Federal Firearms Licensees

Because only a few high-risk licensed firearms dealers and pawnbrokers are associated with multiple crime guns, law enforcement has an opportunity to allocate its resources most efficiently and fairly by focusing on the few suspects who may be involved with the systematic illegal transfer of guns to felons and minors.

A major obstacle to these "firm and fair" enforcement strategies lies in obtaining and analyzing the information needed to distinguish the lawbreakers from law-abiding dealers who happen to turn up frequently in purchase histories of crime guns. Federal, State, and local law enforcement agencies have found that, by sharing information with one another, they can more effectively distinguish the unlucky from the unlawful, and target unlawful activity at the point of retail sale.

One information-sharing strategy, reflected in profile 10, occurs when local agencies ask ATF to trace the purchase history of every crime gun they recover and then use Project LEAD output to target problem areas. Project LEAD is a national gun-tracing initiative to identify straw purchasers. Sometimes, however, the missing puzzle piece lies in a State or local data base, not in ATF trace results. Therefore, potentially high-risk dealers who show up frequently in ATF crime gun trace records but are absent from their States' and localities' records of sales tax receipts or business licenses may warrant a preliminary check by local law enforcement authorities. Active dealers' addresses that lie in residentially zoned neighborhoods may signal an illegal business. Federal licensees who turn up in the trace of a crime handgun but are missing from a State data base of licensed handgun dealers may signal promising leads.

Joint Federal and local task forces may find other strategies helpful in locating people who channel guns to criminals or use them in crimes. In more and more localities, local police are using geographic information systems to locate drug markets, places where "shots fired" 911 calls cluster, and other hotspots for gun crime. Under appropriate safeguards, the task forces can then use a variety of interdiction tactics in identified areas to confiscate illegally carried guns, make arrests, or deter future violence by direct contact with gang leaders, drug dealers, and other participants in violent social networks.

To date, the successes of these information-sharing strategies have largely been measured in terms of licenses confiscated from FFL's involved with criminal activity, prosecutions referred, or convictions obtained they have not been evaluated by gun crimes prevented. Measuring prevention effects presents a difficult challenge in evaluation, but a necessary one because of the risk that the dealers, straw purchasers, and guns removed are simply replaced by others. Recognizing this limitation, the following profiles describe some promising, current programs.


1. J.W. Magaw, "Testimony Before the Subcommittee on Crime and Criminal Justice, Committee on the Judiciary," U.S. House of Representatives, April 25, 1994.

2. L. Bentsen, The National Tracing Center, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Treasury, 1994.

3. R.W. Kelly, Gun Dealer Licensing and Illegal Gun Trafficking A Progress Report, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Treasury, Office of the Undersecretary for Enforcement, January 1997.

Previous Contents Next

Promising Strategies to Reduce Gun Violence OJJDP Report