The flow of guns from states with looser gun laws into states with stricter ones is again emerging as a hot topic, shining a spotlight on an issue that has long flummoxed law enforcement and gun-control advocates. While most guns used in crimes were originally sold legally, what happens to them later is hard to track and even harder to prevent: criminals getting guns from friends, family or on the street.
Here are some questions and answers about tracing firearms:
AREN'T ALL FIREARMS TRACED BY THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT?
No. There is no national registry of firearms. In fact, federal law prohibits the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives from tracking every firearm in the United States. It's not even clear how many firearms exist in the country. Estimates, based on the number of firearms manufactured, imported and exported by American gunmakers, suggest there are more than 310 million firearms owned by civilians.
WHEN DO THE FEDS TRACE FIREARMS?
When a law enforcement agency recovers a firearm in a crime, they go to the ATF with the gun's serial number and other identifying information to trace it. The gun doesn't have to have been fired for law enforcement to seek a trace.
The law enforcement agency is not required to trace the firearm and there are times when it doesn't. For example, if a woman's gun-collector husband dies and she approaches law enforcement to help her dispose of the firearms, police are unlikely to ask that they be traced.
"Almost any time a crime is involved, the firearm is traced," said Larry "Nero" Priester, spokesman for the ATF's Atlanta field office.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
The ATF tracing center in Martinsburg, West Virginia, uses the information supplied to contact the manufacturer and find out which wholesaler the company used. Eventually, investigators track which gun dealer sold the weapon initially. The gun dealer supplies the ATF with copies of federal forms that are filled out each time a gun is sold, which includes such information as the buyer and his or her contact information. From there, ATF investigators are dispatched to interview the first person who bought the firearm and to track each time the firearm was bought and sold up to the point law enforcement recovered it.
WHAT DIFFICULTIES DOES THE ATF ENCOUNTER?
Many years can pass between the initial sale and the time police encounter the weapon. The average "time to crime" — a key barometer law enforcement uses to determine if the initial purchase of the firearm was for nefarious purposes — is about 10 years. If a gun is bought and used several months later in a crime, that's a significant red flag for law enforcement.
Among the difficulties the ATF faces in tracing a firearm are whether the original gun dealer is even still in business. Sometimes the dealer didn't keep good records or the records were lost.
"The traces are only as successful as the (gun dealer's) records. ... There's no exact science," the ATF's Priester said. "A gun can change hands many times."