and checked against the records of out-of-business FFLs that are stored by BATF, as well as records of multiple handgun purchases reported on an ongoing basis by FFLs. If the gun does not appear in these databases, NTC contacts the firearm manufacturer (for domestic guns) or the importer (for foreign guns) and requests information on the distributor that first handled the gun. BATF then follows the chain of subsequent transfers until it identifies the first retail seller. That FFL is then contacted with a request to search his or her records and provide information on when the gun was sold and to whom.

In 1999, trace requests for 164,137 firearms were submitted by law enforcement agencies to NTC. Of these, 52 percent (85,511) were successfully traced to the first retail purchaser. The 48 percent of trace requests that failed did so for a variety of reasons. Nearly 10 percent of the guns (15,750) were not successfully traced because they were too old (pre-1968 manufacture) and another 11 percent (17,776) failed because of problems with the serial number (Pierce et al., 2002). The majority of the remaining unsuccessful trace requests failed because of errors on the submission forms or problems obtaining the information from the FFL who first sold the gun at retail. It is important to note that, even when a trace is “successful,” it provides limited information about the history of the gun (Cook and Braga, 2001). Most successful gun traces access only the data on the dealer’s record for the first retail sale of the gun. Generally, subsequent transactions cannot be traced from the sorts of records required by federal firearms laws.

Beginning in 1993, the Clinton administration was concerned about the apparent ease with which criminals and juveniles obtained guns. BATF was charged with initiating a concerted effort to increase the amount of crime gun tracing, improve the quality of firearms trace data, increase the regulation of gun dealers, educate law enforcement on the benefits of tracing, and increase investigative resources devoted to gun traffickers. Comprehensive tracing of all firearms recovered by police is a key component of BATF’s supply-side strategy to reduce the availability of illegal firearms. In 1996, BATF initiated the Youth Crime Gun Interdiction Initiative with commitments from 17 cities to trace all recovered crime guns (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, 1997). This program expanded to 38 cities in 1999 (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, 2000a) and to 55 cities in 2001 (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, 2002b). Other jurisdictions have also expanded their use of gun tracing; six states, for example, have recently adopted comprehensive tracing as a matter of state policy, either by law (California, Connecticut, North Carolina, and Illinois), by executive order (Maryland), or by law enforcement initiative (New Jersey) (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, 2000a).

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