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Firearm Traces: The Anti-Gunners' Big Lie

Wednesday, February 2, 2000

Envisioned as a tool for law enforcement, not for lawmakers, BATF firearm traces are being used deceitfully to advance the anti-gun agenda. Would-be gun banners know the national media elite will report their propaganda as if it were the gospel truth.

You've heard the old saying: To make people believe a lie, make the lie a big one and tell it often. No one has learned that dirty lesson better than gun control advocates. There's not room enough here to list all the lies they've told about guns and gun owners. But there's one in particular that I believe needs to be exposed for the fraud that it is--their ongoing misrepresentation of BATF firearm traces.

Anti-gunner twisting of firearm traces began in earnest in the late 1980s with the debate over "assault weapons." You probably recall wild claims about the number of "assault weapons" supposedly "traced to crime." You may have watched U.S. Rep. Tim Roemer (D-IN) stand on the floor of the House of Representatives, shamelessly claiming that "From 1986 to 1991, 20,526 semi-automatic weapons were traced to criminal activity." Or Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) claiming that military-looking semi-automatic firearms "accounted for 8.4% of all firearms traced to crime from 1986 to 1991." Or Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) claiming that "When a firearm is used for crime, it is 19 times more likely to be an assault weapon than some other type of gun." You probably saw countless newspaper articles, opinion columns, letters-to-the-editor and TV news reports all making similar references to firearms supposedly "traced to crime" or, more ridiculously, "traced at crime scenes."

What the anti-gunners wanted the public to swallow then, and want the public to swallow today, is that firearm traces, looked at collectively, identify the kinds of guns that are most often used to commit violent crimes. To that end, they've been trying to convince the public that each and every trace is a scientific crime-solving procedure that enables the police to determine if a gun was used to commit a violent crime.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The BATF doesn't "trace guns to crimes" or "at crime scenes." A trace is nothing more than a check of federal firearms licensee records by the BATF to try to determine how a firearm moved in the chain of commerce. As the Congressional Research Service (CRS) reported to Congress in 1992, "The [B]ATF tracing system is an operational system designed to help law enforcement agencies identify the ownership path of individual firearms." 1

Here's how a firearm trace works. If a law enforcement agency comes into possession of a firearm and asks the BATF to conduct a trace, the BATF contacts the firearm's manufacturer or importer, provides the firearm's serial number and asks to whom the firearm was sold. If the firearm has been sold to a distributor, the BATF contacts it to determine to whom it sold the firearm. Typically, this process is repeated throughout the commercial chain until a retail dealer is identified. Depending on the wishes of the law enforcement agency that requests the trace, the dealer may be contacted by that agency or the BATF. If the dealer is not suspected of criminal activity, he will likely be asked to check his records to identify to whom he sold the firearm. In this way, traces may help the BATF and local police identify the rare rogue dealer who repeatedly sells guns to criminals, or an individual who repeatedly buys guns for illegal resale to criminals. As the BATF explained in its recent report on its tracing operations, traces "can facilitate the investigation, arrest, and prosecution of illegal suppliers [of firearms]." 2

But traces don't accomplish, nor are they intended to accomplish, what gun control advocates claim. As the CRS noted, the BATF's tracing system "was not designed to collect statistics. ... [F]irearms selected for tracing do not constitute a random sample and cannot be considered representative of the larger universe of all firearms used by criminals, or of any subset of that universe. As a result, data from the tracing system may not be appropriate for drawing inferences such as which makes or models of firearms are used for illicit purposes."

There are good reasons for the CRS warning: First, though gun control advocates imply that traces are confined to guns that have been used to commit violent crimes, the fact is that most firearms that are traced are not even related to violent crimes, much less used to commit them. "A law enforcement officer may initiate a trace request for any reason," CRS explains. "No crime need be involved. No screening policy ensures or requires that only guns known or suspected to have been used in crimes are traced." BATF itself has noted that it "does not always know if a firearm being traced has been used in a crime. For instance, sometimes a firearm is traced simply to determine the rightful owner after it is found by a law enforcement agency." 3

Second, only a small percentage of firearms used to commit crimes are ever traced. Law enforcement agencies do not request traces on most firearms they recover, especially in cities or states with the most gun control laws.

Third, the BATF discourages trace requests on older firearms. Older firearms, the BATF says, "are more likely to have passed through numerous hands before entering illegal commerce," making them more difficult to trace. The CRS noted that "once a firearm is purchased by a retail consumer, it is more difficult to trace the line of ownership." The BATF also discourages traces on one particular class of firearms that it says "are likely to have been illegally trafficked"--firearms with obliterated serial numbers. In all, the BATF reports that in its most recent efforts, its National Tracing Center, located in West Virginia, completed only 37 percent of traces requested, mostly due to "limitations on tracing older firearms" and the "lack of needed information about the firearm in trace requests."

Fourth, police departments sometimes request traces only on particular types of firearms, such as "assault weapons" or semi-automatic handguns. Such skewing of traces may tell us something about the way police work can be corrupted by the politics of gun control, but not much else.

Today, if you're following the debate over lower-priced handguns and the so-called "one-gun-a-month" issue, you're hearing the anti-gunners misuse trace data again. Promoting her so-called "junk guns" bill, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) is claiming that "the three firearms most frequently traced to crime scenes in 1995 were junk guns" and that "junk guns are 3.4 times as likely to be used in crimes as are other firearms." Boxer is blowing smoke, of course. The notion that lower-priced handguns are used to commit a majority of crimes has been rejected by not only leading criminologists like Gary Kleck, but by the anti-gun Police Foundation as well.

Meanwhile, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) is trying to push his "one-gun-a-month" bill with the claim that traces indicate that most firearms used by criminals in a given state come from other states. BATF says that traces show something entirely different, however. "In general," BATF reports, "the State in which the community is located is the largest single source of successfully traced crime guns."

Because the anti-gunners are not able to prove their claims with legitimate crime reports from police departments, or by studies by reputable criminologists, they've resorted to contriving fraudulent "statistics" out of BATF tracing data. Left unchallenged, they'll continue to misuse tracing data in an effort to erode our right to arms. Every NRA member should write a letter to the editor of his or her local newspaper, or make a phone call to the news manager of the local TV news station, whenever BATF firearm traces are misstated. Set the facts straight. Let's dispel the myth of firearm traces once and for all. For more information about traces, see "Setting the Record Straight on BATF Firearms Traces".

1. CRS Report for Congress, "Assault Weapons:" Military-Style Semi-automatic Firearms Facts and Issues, Keith Bea, et al, May 13, 1992.
2. The Youth Crime Gun Interdiction Initiative, Crime Gun Trace Analysis Reports: The Illegal Youth Firearms Markets in 17 Communities, July 1997
3. BATF response of April 8, 1991 to an inquiry by House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee.

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Established in 1975, the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) is the "lobbying" arm of the National Rifle Association of America. ILA is responsible for preserving the right of all law-abiding individuals in the legislative, political, and legal arenas, to purchase, possess and use firearms for legitimate purposes as guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.