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Back to Archives | Back to February 2010 Contents 

Officer Safety: The Threat of the Armed Gunman: Using Firearms Tracing to Reduce Armed Violence

By Special Agent Benjamin R. Hayes, Chief, Law Enforcement Support Branch, National Firearms Tracing Center, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, Martinsburg, West Virginia

he most lethal threat to officer safety is the armed gunman. Police officers are 13 times more likely to be killed with a firearm than with any other weapon.1 One method for keeping firearms out of dangerous criminal hands and keeping officers safe is by tracing recovered firearms through eTrace, operated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.

Criminals continue to arm themselves with high-powered weapons, and the threat they pose goes well beyond law enforcement. The public is increasingly victimized as well. In 1963, 56 percent of all homicides involved firearms.2 By 2007, 68 percent of all homicides involved firearms.3

There is no reason to suspect that this upward trend will decrease. Where and how do these offenders obtain firearms and how can they be stopped?

What Is eTrace?

eTrace is the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) Internet-based firearms trace submission and trace analysis tool. With eTrace—available at no cost to the entire law enforcement community—a department can prepare, transmit, and receive completed firearms trace requests securely. No additional hardware or software is required—only Internet access.

Departments that use eTrace can also directly access a historical database of firearms-related trace data comprising all requests submitted by that department. eTrace also allows the user to analyze all of the department’s firearms trace information and generate a number of preformatted analytical reports.

An Efficient Strategy for Reducing Firearms Violence

Law enforcement must find new ways to attack sources of illegally gained and criminally used firearms. Through eTrace, law enforcement agencies now have a sophisticated tool to fully exploit their recovered gun information. ATF’s eTrace allows participating agencies to create an aggressive strategy that uses the information about criminals’ guns against the criminals themselves.

Departments that commit to firearms tracing can learn how local criminals obtain firearms; determine the extent of the local criminal firearms threat; identify those who provide or facilitate the criminal acquisition of firearms; and prevent legal sales from turning into sources of criminal access to firearms.

How Do Criminals Obtain Firearms?

Criminals generally obtain firearms by buying them or trading for them at gun stores or gun shows, on the Internet, or on the street; they steal them or they direct someone else to make the purchase for them through a straw purchase. Regardless of their methods, all firearms acquisitions have a common thread.

Virtually all firearms in the United States enter commerce lawfully through a federally licensed firearms manufacturer or importer, passing down to a retail firearms dealer, a federal firearms licensee (FFL). FFLs are required by law to keep permanent records of manufacture or importation and of each transfer, disposition, or sale. The final record is created with the first purchase by a non-licensed individual or party.

Through this protocol, most firearms have a document pedigree and leave a paper trail. The Gun Control Act of 1968 created this environment to help law enforcement fight violent crime. Firearms tracing is the criminals’ Achilles’ heel and is the key to reducing the flow and access of firearms to criminals.

Firearms Tracing

Firearms tracing is the systematic process of tracking this series of transfers for a recovered crime gun. The record of an individual firearm is the chain of custody from its origin (manufacturer/importer) through the chain of distribution (wholesaler/retailer) to the first retail purchaser of the firearm.

Each year, ATF’s National Tracing Center processes more than 300,000 firearms trace requests for law enforcement agencies around the world. That tracing service is provided at no cost to the requesting agencies.

The central purpose of firearms tracing is to assist in determining how a firearm was diverted from lawful commerce into the hands of a criminal. In firearms traces, ATF focuses on the first purchase by a non-licensed individual. Although that purchaser may not be part of the crime, he or she may become a witness who may provide crucial information needed to continue the investigative process.

Tracing produces information vital to identifying and locating the initial purchaser. Retail purchasers of firearms must complete and sign the ATF Form 4473, Federal Firearms Transaction Record. This form requires that the purchaser answer a series of qualifying questions and provide identifying information that an FFL uses to verify the individual’s identity and legal ability to buy the firearm.

Firearm Tracing Benefits

Individual trace results can be printed directly from eTrace onto a single page that summarizes the firearm’s entire trace pedigree. The Firearms Trace Summary shows the full firearm description, requesting agency information, and possessor and recovery location (if provided by the requestor). If the firearm is traced successfully, the name of the purchaser, the identification used, physical description, place of purchase, and a calculaton of the time period between the retail sale and the criminal recovery (time-to-crime) is also given.

A single firearms trace can place an individual in a specific location, show the use of documented identification, and prove that a federal form has been completed in which he or she has affirmed the truth (with signature). Individual traces are integral in determining the processes by which criminals obtain firearms. They can identify individuals who use fictitious identification; guns that are sold illegally; guns sold at gun shows, and stolen firearms that were never reported or whose recovery has previously been unreported.

An individual trace also often identifies a straw purchaser—an individual who claims that the firearm will be for his or her own use, but is actually purchasing it for someone else. That someone else is generally prohibited by law from purchasing or possessing a firearm, or seeks to hide the firearm acquisition. Hidden purchasers include felons, active criminals, and persons with clear criminal intent.

The straw purchaser becomes party to the crime by placing a lethal weapon in a criminal’s hands. Straw purchasing is never an isolated criminal act: it is a conspiracy that frequently reveals active criminal associations and enterprises, including gang and narcotics activity.

An individual firearms trace can be used to prove a lie and identify witnesses, suspects, and previously unidentified coconspirators. Single firearms traces have proven to be key to solving violent crimes such as homicide and rape.

Tracing Every Gun?

Tracing all recovered firearms (comprehensive tracing) provides departments an invaluable platform of information from which many policing strategies can be generated. Most agencies can accomplish comprehensive tracing efficiently through eTrace, placing a minimal burden on already limited resources.

The information-rich product of comprehensive tracing provides a picture of the criminal firearms problem within a jurisdiction and points to important witnesses and evidence. Departments can enhance their policing strategies and investigations since they know where firearms are being recovered, from whom, the type, their sources, and their purchasers.

Departments also benefit by closely inspecting how firearms are diverted to criminals. These are not solitary events and often involve conspiratorial acts and agreements. Comprehensive tracing can identify the sources of firearms and alert deparments to criminal and gang associations.

Comprehensive tracing also pools resources between departments. Tracing often identifies other law enforcement agencies whose recovered firearms have common firearms sources, purchasers, possessors, and recovery locations.

eTrace’s referral list identifies other departments and agencies with information in common and provides the contact information for their linked traces. A referral list is included in every trace result. Specifically, if a department’s firearms trace has a purchaser and/or possessor who match by date of birth and name, or a firearms licensee, and/or a recovery location in common, this list will display the name and contact information for the other department or agency. This remarkable resource can make departments with common points able to work together if warranted.


eTrace is a user-friendly interactive tool designed to be easily mastered. It does not require attendance at a training school. The program comes with a downloadable user manual that includes screenshots and logical progressions. Contact numbers are provided for user assistance.

How Does eTracing Work?

At a computer with Internet access, eTrace users log into their individual, password-protected account. The user’s home page lists all firearms traces submitted in the previous 30 days. eTrace allows the users to see the status of their requests to determine if the trace is still in progress or has been completed.

Creating a Trace Request

Users start the firearms trace process on screen, since eTrace is a paperless tracing environment. Each screen has a series of drop-down lists that autopopulate selections for quick and accurate data entry. For example, the Lookup Known Firearm Combinations screen helps firearms description entry process by searching for known valid combinations by manufacturer, type, caliber, and model.

Fillable text screens are present throughout eTrace to allow users to enter information when no pre-existling match is found. The completed trace request is submitted electronically, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It eliminates errors that faxing and invalid submissions create, diminishing the results notification time. Critical trace requests—urgent traces—are expedited by electronic submission, further ensuring that these results can be returned within 24 hours.

What Trace Results Look Like

In addition to seeing the most recent trace results on the home page, users can select views of any or all of their trace results by going to the Search for Trace Results screen.

eTrace’s analytical tool allows the user to perform both quick searches or detailed, multilayered searches from trace data. For example, a typical search can be for all persons with the same last name or who used identical identification when purchasing firearms. A multilayered search might involve purchasers of a specific caliber of firearm who show a place of birth in a specific foreign country.

eTrace also provides a series of administrative fields so that traces can be keyed to internal departments, initiatives, or any chosen criteria. Every firearms trace result can be printed out on a single, letter-sized sheet of paper.

Analytical Statistical Queries Display

eTrace users can generate a number of statistical reports in downloadable graph format that includes links. Preformatted queries include total traces by year; top firearms traced; time-to-crime rates; and top firearms licensees (to whom firearms are traced).

Other eTrace Capabilities

eTrace allows for updating trace requests, adding information on possessors or completed firearms descriptions when it becomes available, and accepting batch trace submissions electronically from individual, department-generated data extracts.

Get an Account

Contact the eTrace Administrators at or call toll-free at 1-800-788-7133. ■


1U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Criminal Justice Information Systems, Uniform Crime Report, Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA), 1998–2007, table 1, (accessed January 19, 2010).
2Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency, Hearings before the Committee on the Judiciary pursuant to S. Res. 52, 89th Cong., 1st sess. 1966.
3U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Criminal Justice Information Systems, Crime in the United States, 2007, Expanded Homicide Data, table 6, (accessed January 19, 2010).



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVII, no. 2, February 2010. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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