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Setting The Record Straight On BATF Firearms Traces

Saturday, January 10, 2004

"Gun control" advocates purposely mischaracterize BATFE firearm commerce tracing for several purposes, frequently to promote "assault weapon" (AW) bans. Before the 1994 Clinton Gun Ban (the federal "assault weapons" and "large" magazine ban), data from state and local law enforcement agencies, and federal prison inmate surveys, uniformly showed that AWs were used in only a small percentage of crime.1 Crime victim surveys indicated the figure is only 0.25%.2 Murders with knives, clubs and hands outnumbered those with AWs by more than 20-to-1.3

In order to portray AWs as commonplace crime guns, and gain support for the Clinton ban, the "gun control" lobby manipulated BATFE traces. Since AWs were a hot political issue, there was a particular interest in tracing them, so they were traced disproportionately, relative to their use in crime. Anti-gunners claimed, incorrectly, that because AWs were often traced, it meant that they were often used to commit violent crimes.4 Typical claims alleged that AWs were "traced to crime."

The claims were unsupportable. For one thing, BATFE doesn`t "trace guns to crime." A trace is merely a process by which BATFE contacts the manufacturer or importer of a specific gun, asks to whom the gun was sold, repeating that process down the chain of commerce in an attempt to identify the gun`s most recent purchaser. Traces are used to identify individuals involved in illegal gun purchases and sales.

Additionally, most guns that are traced have not been used to commit a violent crime, and most guns used to commit violent crimes are never traced. The Congressional Research Service reported in 1992:5

    • "The [B]ATF tracing system is an operational system designed to help law enforcement agencies identify the ownership path of individual firearms. It was not designed to collect statistics."

  • "Firearms 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."

  • "A law enforcement officer may initiate a trace request for any reason. 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." BATFE "noted it is not possible to determine if traced firearms are related to criminal activity."

  • "Trace requests are not accurate indicators of specified crimes .... traces may be requested for a variety of reasons not necessarily related to criminal incidents. For example, a trace may be conducted on a firearm found at the residence of a suspect though the firearm itself is not associated with a criminal act. Traces may also be requested with respect to abandoned firearms, those found by chance, those seen by officers for sale at gun shows or pawn shops, or those used by suicide victims. . . . It is not possible to identify how frequently firearm traces are requested for reasons other than those associated with violent crimes."

  • "[B]ATF 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."

With the Clinton Gun Ban scheduled to expire on Sept. 13, 2004, anti-gun groups are demanding that it be extended indefinitely, and expanded. In an attempt to justify an extension, they now claim that AW traces have decreased, so the ban must have reduced crime.6 These new claims suffer the same flaws as their predecessors, and more.

The study Congress required of the AW ban noted, "because the banned guns and magazines were never used in more than a fraction of all gun murders, even the maximum theoretically achievable preventive effect of the ban on gun murders is almost certainly too small to detect statistically." It also noted that the ban`s 10-round magazine limit isn`t a factor in multiple-victim or multiple-wound crimes.7 A follow-up study found "gunshot injury incidents involving pistols [which use magazines] were less likely to produce a death than were those involving revolvers" and "the average number of wounds for pistol victims was actually lower than that for revolver victims."8

Additionally, the ban couldn`t have had an effect on crime, because it banned only attachments (e.g., angled grips) that have nothing to do with crime. Moreover, AWs account for a smaller share of traces today because they are no longer a hot issue (there is less interest in tracing them) and BATFE now encourages traces on other guns. For more information on the AW issue, see the NRA-ILA Clinton Gun Ban and 1994 Crime Bill fact sheets.


    1. See Gary Kleck, Targeting Guns, 1997; Dave Kopel, "Rational Basis Analysis for ‘Assault Weapon` Prohibition," www.davekopel.com/2A/LawRev/rational.htm. Bureau of Justice Statistics: Survey of State Prison Inmates 1991 (3/93), Guns Used in Crime (7/95), Firearm Use by Offenders (11/01).
    1. Kleck, p.112. Basis: National Crime Victimization Surveys, which identify many crimes not reported to police.
    1. In 1993, the most recent year of statistics available when Congress passed the ban, knives were used in 13% of murders, clubs, 4 %; and bare hands, 5%. In 2002, it was knives, 13%; clubs, 5%; and bare hands, 7%. (FBI)
    1. Ex.: "Assault weapons are twenty times more likely to be used in crime." (HCI adv., "We Want a Nationwide Ban on These Weapons of Destruction!," Roll Call, April 18, 1994.)
    1. "Assault Weapons": Military-Style Semiautomatic Firearms Facts and Issues," May 13, 1992, 92-434 GOV.
    1. Ex.: "Trace requests for assault weapons in the 1993-95 period declined 20% in the first calendar year after the ban took effect." (www.bradycampaign.org/facts/gunlaws/awb.asp)
    1. Roth, Koper, et al., Urban Institute, "Impact Evaluation of the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act of 1994," 3/13/97. Available at www.urban.org.
  1. Reedy and Koper, "Impact of handgun types on gun assault outcomes," Injury Prevention, Sept. 2003
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