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Back to Archives | Back to November 2012 Contents 

Every Gun, Every Time

By Benjamin Hayes, Special Agent, Law Enforcement Support Branch, National Tracing Center, Martinsburg, West Virginia

atal shootings of police officers reached a 20-year high in the middle of 2011.1 Police chiefs must commit to identify and eliminate the sources by which violent offenders obtain firearms used to target members of police departments and citizens within communities. Leaders cannot simply invest in training to prepare officers to survive deadly encounters or conduct professional violent crime investigations after the fact. Chiefs must act strategically and lead a systematic approach that disarms the criminal before violence occurs. Recent mass shootings in the United States underscore this necessity.

The good news for police leaders is that the tools required to honor this commitment already are available for free, and most departments are employing at least some of them. The question is how effectively is one’s department taking advance of simple methods to identify and eliminate illicit sources of guns to criminals to protect officers and communities?

Consider whether you agree or disagree with the following statements:

  • My officers always safely handle firearms and unload them when they are taken into custody.
  • My officers always ask specific questions about the source of the guns that are recovered.
  • My officers accurately identify firearms for National Crime Information Center (NCIC) transactions and on reports.
  • My department properly performs NCIC system transactions on recovered guns and creates recovered gun records.
  • My department traces all recovered firearms.

If you agree with the statements, then your department is taking advantage of free and proven tools for protecting the public and promoting officer safety through the use of recovered guns (that is, the tools of the criminal) to solve crimes and identify burglars, drug users, straw purchasers, and others who supply criminals with guns.

If you cannot confidently say that these statements describe your department, then the information in this article will be doubly important to you.

Today, every jurisdiction is likely to face diminishing budgets, staff reductions, and loss of resources. Police departments are earnestly searching for low-cost ways to continue to serve the public and maintain officer safety. The time to do more with less has already arrived. But, these lean and efficient solutions do not all have to be radically new. There are a number of solid programs already available and at no cost.

Police departments have already identified that one way to address the challenge of doing more with less is to work together. It is clearly more effective than working alone. This article is focused on five strategies that are available to every law enforcement agency. Together they serve as the foundation of any gun violence reduction strategy aimed at improving officer safety as well as protecting the public.

With this focus, it is time to reevaluate these five program areas to ensure that police departments are using them to their full advantage.

Statement One: My officers always safely handle firearms and unload them when they are taken into custody.

Is it safe to assume that officers are safely handling and unloading firearms that they recover? Going for long periods of time without an accidental discharge may be more attributable to good fortune than to safe practices. An accidental discharge has the potential to injure or kill officers, the public, and law enforcement professionals from other departments. One study in government agencies showed that military occupations barely exceeded the police as the profession experiencing the greatest proportion of fatal workplace accidental gunshot injuries.2

Every police department should review the training in handling firearms that each officer receives. Some of the questions to be asked follow:

  • Is there specific firearms safety training?
  • Has that training been limited to duty weapons only?
  • If officers train only with semiautomatic pistols and shotguns, have they practiced safe handling of rifles and revolvers?
  • Do officers know how to safely uncock a revolver, for example?
  • Do the barrels of firearms, loaded or unloaded, at the range or being recovered on the street regularly laser (that is, get pointed directly at) people who are not targets?

It may be time to review the level and the content of police academy firearms familiarization training. Police departments may want to consider using in-service training as a place to provide training in safe handling and unloading of nonissue firearms and to reemphasize firearms safety.

Statement Two: My officers always ask specific questions about the source of the guns that are recovered.

Finding the source of firearms to criminals is central to reducing armed violence. Virtually every department begins this line of questioning specifically for officer safety. Clearly, asking about weapons should be standard protocol for all law enforcement officers. Further, this questioning can yield greater future benefits. A simple admission during questioning can lay the foundation for finding illegally possessed firearms and for establishing illegal firearms possession prosecutions, even if firearms are not present on the person or at the scene.3

Questioning should not end when firearms are found. Just as departments relentlessly pursue the source of drugs, so should there be pursuit of the person or the persons who provide firearms to criminals. A standard question such as “Are these your drugs?” applies to guns as well, as in “Is this your gun?” This line of inquiry requires no added resources and can go a long way toward taking firearms out of the hands of criminals and determining how the gun got to the crime scene. Whether the answer is yes or no, more answers are needed.

The following questions, or questions like them, should be added to any field interrogation or interview when a firearm is taken into custody. Any responses to questions regarding firearms should be recorded in the police report

  • Do you have a gun(s)?
  • When and where did you get it (them)?
  • If the gun(s) is not theirs, whose gun(s) is it?
  • How much did (you) they pay for the gun(s)?
  • Do others get guns from the same source or in the same way?

Statement Three: My officers accurately identify firearms for National Crime Information Center (NCIC) transactions and on reports.

Recording all the information from the firearm is the best method for accurate firearms identification. Errors in identifying a firearm in hand and in reports can lead to errors throughout the custody and the investigative process. Inaccurate and incomplete firearms descriptions can lead to missed matches for stolen firearms, chain of custody issues, and invalid firearms traces.

The serial number is crucial, but not all serial numbers are unique. Some firearms bear the same serial numbers. The additional markings on firearms are the keys to positive identification. Simply recording a serial number and a manufacturer name is not enough. Firearms made before 1969 were manufactured under marking requirements that allowed duplicative markings. Firearms manufactured in or imported into the United States after 1968 required unique serialization and markings so that they could be uniquely identified.

Firearms entries made in the NCIC gun file require the serial number, the manufacturer, the caliber, and the type. However, because of the sheer volume and the variety of firearms, all of the markings on a firearm may play an integral role in making a unique identification.

Extraneous markings, including advertising, and inconspicuous locations of required markings can confuse law enforcement officials and lead to errors in identification. Every written firearm description should include the information in Figure 1. If any of the markings are not present, this fact should be noted as well.

Figure 1: Firearms Description
1. Manufacturer2. Type3. Model4. Caliber5. Serial Number
6. Country of Origin7. Importer8. Other Markings or Information

For assistance in properly identifying firearms, a free publication is available through the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) Distribution Center.4

Statement Four: My department properly performs NCIC system transactions on recovered guns and creates recovered gun records.

Many law enforcement agencies do not perform inquiries prior to entering recovered guns into the NCIC gun file, do not accurately enter firearms, or do not make entries at all.5 A recent study of gun recovery protocols indicates that a broad spectrum of department employees may be involved in the processes.6 Responsibility for these transactions may be placed on officers, dispatchers, terminal operators, property managers, and other department staff. The variety of purpose and incentive to conduct good transactions is worthy of a complete review by individual departments.

Whenever a gun is taken into custody by a department, the NCIC gun file should be queried. This ensures that the department will know if another law enforcement agency, or even a member of its own, has previously entered a firearm into the system as lost, stolen, or involved in a felony. Failure to perform this query is cheating law enforcement agencies out of an important opportunity to match lost, stolen, and felonious guns with those that have been recovered.

If there is no matching record for a recovered gun in NCIC, it should be entered into the system as a recovered gun. These records are another invaluable asset to law enforcement. Properly entered recovered gun records have solved burglaries because stolen guns are frequently recovered before the theft is discovered. The recovered gun entries point agencies to incidents where stolen guns have already been recovered. This can produce witnesses and suspects where none was previously known.

Statement Five: My department traces all recovered firearms.

A single firearms trace can tell you who bought the gun, where it was purchased, what identification and address was used by the purchaser, and if the purchaser bought other handguns at the same time. One trace also has the potential to identify and link suspects involved in criminal violations, develop potential witnesses, determine the sources of firearms used in crimes, prove ownership, and produce new investigative leads.

Firearms can be traced electronically using ATF’s free, web-based electronic tracing tool: eTrace. It is a paperless firearms trace request submission system that also provides an interactive trace analysis capability. The system provides real-time capabilities that allow law enforcement agencies to submit electronic firearms trace requests, monitor the progress of traces, retrieve completed trace results, and query firearms trace-related data.

A single firearm traced using eTrace can notify the requesting police department if other departments have traced firearms to an individual (for example, a purchaser, a possessor, or their associates); a licensed gun retailer; or the recovery location. This referral list promotes collaborative efforts to reduce criminal access to firearms.

The relational database eTrace allows departments to manipulate and query their trace data and print and download that data in standard formats. To assist in developing a picture of the crime gun problem based on trace data, eTrace easily produces seven standard summary reports in graph form. These reports show the following:

  • Total Firearms Traces Requested (by Year)
  • Status of Firearms Traces Requested (Completed, In-Progress)
  • Time between Original Purchase and Recovery (Time to Crime)
  • Most Frequently Traced Firearms
  • Crimes Most Commonly Associated with Firearms Traces
  • Top Firearms Retailers to Whom Firearms Are Traced
  • Ages of Possessors of Recovered and Traced Firearms

The program is provided to law enforcement agencies at no cost and facilitates easy trace submissions with drop-down lists and auto-populate features. An eTrace account can be requested through the website Tracing all recovered firearms is the best way to identify sources of guns to criminals.

This article provides a concise strategy that takes advantage of tools already available at no cost to law enforcement agencies. The five steps outlined here are simple and efficient protocols focused on reducing firearm-related crimes and keeping officers and the public safe.

These concepts also support collaborative efforts in law enforcement. Information sharing supports regionalization and pooling of resources. It is time for every department to review its effectiveness in fully utilizing these valuable and free resources. ♦


1National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, “Law Enforcement Fatalities Increase 14 Percent in First Half of 2011; Firearms-Related Fatalities Reach 20-Year High,” Research Bulletin, (accessed August 28, 2012).
2Stephen M. Pegula, “Fatal Occupational Injuries from Accidental Gunshot Wounds, 1993–2002,” Bureau of Labor Statistics, September 29, 2004, (accessed August 28, 2012).
3United States v. Harris, 942 F.2d 1125 (7th Cir. 1991).
4U.S. Department of Justice, ATF, Police Officer’s Guide to Recovered Firearms, (accessed August 28, 2012).
5Federal Bureau of Investigations Criminal Justice Information Systems Division, ATF National Tracing Center, Comparison of Stolen and Recovered Gun Records in NCIC, 2005.
6IACP et al., Recovered Firearms Survey, 2009.

Please cite as:

Benjamin Hayes, "Every Gun, Every Time," The Police Chief 79 (November 2012): 58–59.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXIX, no. , November 2012. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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