Why are firearms traces important? The first thing we should answer is what is a firearm trace and how is it used by law enforcement?
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) National Tracing Center (NTC) is the country's only crime gun tracing facility. The NTC mission is to conduct firearms tracing to provide investigative leads for federal, state, local and foreign law enforcement agencies. The purpose is to provide critical information that helps domestic and international law enforcement agencies solve firearms crimes; detect firearms trafficking; and track the intrastate, interstate and international movement of crime guns.
Firearms tracing is the systematic tracking of a firearm recovered by law enforcement through the chain of distribution to identify the first retail purchaser. The reason firearm traces are important is that they support investigative leads, possibly linking a suspect to a firearm in a criminal investigation, identifying firearms traffickers, and/or identifying patterns and trends in illegal firearms trafficking where sufficiently comprehensive tracing is undertaken by a given community.
The authorization to trace firearms falls under the Gun Control Act of 1968 (GCA). The GCA requires that Licensees maintain records of the transfer of firearms, commonly referred to as firearms transaction records. The purpose of maintaining these records is to ensure accountability for firearms and to enable tracing. As an example, if a firearm were to be recovered at a crime scene, through a firearms trace it can be traced from the manufacturer to the first purchaser of record.
Contrary to some opinions on the matter, the ATF is prohibited from maintaining firearms transaction records for licensees who are still in business. That is why ATF must contact active Federal firearms licensees (FFLs) directly to obtain access to their firearms transaction records. Under the GCA, FFLs have 24 hours to respond to a trace request.