What is the success rate of serial# searches in identifying the person using a firearm in a crime?

Given that a law enforcement entity has a firearm that was used in a crime, how often does attempting to trace it via it’s serial number actually lead to identifying the person who had it last?

If you watch crime shows on TV you’ve undoubtedly seen someone sit down at a computer and type in a serial number and in a few seconds it spits out a name and our protagonists go pick that person up. From what I’ve been able to find out, it doesn’t work that way.

Short version:
They ask the manufacturer, (or importer), who they sold the firearm to. Usually a distributor or retailer.
They ask the distributor or retailer who they sold it to.
If it was a distributor, they ask the retailer who bought it who they sold it to.
All of these businesses are required to keep records of their sales, (but are not required to input them into any national database).

Eventually them arrive at the identity of the first individual to purchase the firearm.

At that point, things get a lot iffier. Individuals are not required to keep records of firearm transfers.
Some states are beginning to require individuals to transfer firearms through Federal Firearms License holders, but that’s a pretty recent development.
And if the original purchaser sold the firearm, lost it, or had it stolen, chances are good that he/she doesn’t know where it went from there.

So anyway, does anybody know how often the ‘tracers’ end up with the identity of the criminal?

I couldn’t find any statistics on the BATFE’s website.


As the ATF considers it to be a successful trace once the original purchaser is identified, I doubt the data you seek exists.

The trace never “identifies the criminal” it just is additional point of evidence on opportunity if it traces to the owner. Remember that the standard of evidence is “beyond a reasonable doubt” and simple ownership is not enough to establish the owner used the weapon itself.

Even if the crime is committed by the original purchaser of a weapon those crimes are typically interpersonal and/or involve domestic violence and so the other evidence will be far more important. But unless the original purchaser was a prohibited person it wouldn’t be evidence of a crime, and the following data point would be more than enough to establish reasonable doubt against any prossicuter that tried to make that claim.


So the only numbers you will probably get is how often the ATF can successfully trace the original purchaser. I can’t find hard numbers but it appears that in 30% of cases someone along the chain has gone out of business which complicates the efforts.

My understanding is that the database does exist, but it isn’t automated. The gun lobby has (for reasons I don’t totally understand) gotten a law passed to prohibit gun sale records submitted to the appropriate authorities (BATF?) from being computerized. So there’s a building in Virginia with all the paper records kept in file cabinets, and to run a trace, someone has to manually find the record.

Noting this is GQ, and I am providing a trying to offer a factual response and not my personal opinion on the subject.

Gun rights groups argued that once the government has a searchable database of firearms it could used to confiscate weapons from private citizens.

As California has used their database to do so and has confiscated firearms from people having pot possession convictions from the 1970’s recently. Confiscation is a rallying point for those who are pro-gun rights side of the debate. As these databases were used in other countries for the same purpose they have precedence to support their concerns.

Well, the idea is to prevent them from coming to take the guns.:dubious: But CA actually did this, so maybe they are not so crazy.

But in real life, actually, it’s rarely useful. Sure, you try it, assuming the serial number hasnt been removed and assuming the gun is found at the scene of the crime.

So, first of all, the criminal has to be stupid enuf to leave the gun at the scene of the crime. Usually they take it with them (and if you get a search warrant and find it under their couch and the bullets “match” you’re in business- and of course you have no need to search the serial number)). If used in a killing and they are smart, they dump it in the river. Ok, not that many crooks are smart. They usually take it home and hide it. Really.

Then, you can trace it to the first dealer of record. It is very very doubtful the criminal bought it there. He may have bought it thru a strawman or the black market or stolen it.

Now, Let’s assume John Brown bought it back in 1991. You call him or visit. You ask him if he still has the gun and if not (and it’s always not) what happened. “It was stolen.” "I sold it. "

Your chance of tracking the gun is if the guy who bought it, shoots someone, then drops it there, and both doesnt have a alibi and has a motive for the crime. Better yet, his fingerprints are on it- in which case, you dont need to track the serial number.
See how useless it is? maybe once in 10000.

In some cases, they dont even bother.

I’ll mention that the BATF does have some sales records. If a FFL holder goes out of business his paper records are sent to the BATF for safe keeping.

They have their top people working on it. Top people.

Which is basically useless. An entire state learned an expensive lesson on that.

I own a gun store. If I go out of business I’m required to send my bound book and 4473 forms in. Those records will go somewhere. But once again, they’d only lead to who originally purchased the firearm from me. That wouldn’t be very useful in solving a crime if that purchaser sold the firearm privately or had it stolen. As an FFL dealer I am required to show my records to a BATFE agent upon request. The local police not necessarily.

And laws that require reporting a stolen firearm are useless as well. For example, I own a cabin in northern Wisconsin, a mobile home in Florida. I have firearms (locked and stored) at each. If those dwellings were burglarized and the guns taken it could be as long as 6-8 months before I’d know. That’s a long time for a weapon to be moved on the street.

In 25 years as a narcotics, gang and homicide investigator i don’t recall a single case where a trace solved a crime. I’m sure it happens on rare occasions but most, if not all the guns I recovered were stolen or illegally transferred at some point. I guess if the original purchaser killed someone and left the gun at the scene of a “whodunit” it would help but I’ve never heard of that happening. Traces can be helpful to identify straw buyers or dealers that may warrant a little more attention from ATF&E.

The assassin of the British MP Jo Cox had a .22 sawn-off rifle, running the number showed it had been stolen from a pest controller’s vehicle in Keighley about a year before.
They had no idea how it got from there to him, except that he didn’t steal it.

A bank manager called Alistair Wilson was assassinated on answering his door in Nairn, Scotland, on 28th November 2004. The murder remains unsolved, and no motive has ever been adduced. They found the gun in a storm drain a few days later, a .25 Haenel pistol (Schemeisser’s Patent). Unregistered, of course.
It was the first murder in the town in 25 years, and the first shooting murder ever, that anyone could recall.

Presumably they did so under a law that prohibited convicted felons from possessing firearms? Assuming that’s so, the complaint should be about that law not about the confiscation that was legal

Thanks all. That’s about what I thought.

The reason I asked was that I read a newspaper article yesterday where the writer was wringing his hands over ‘ghost guns’, and I was wondering how much of a real world problem they really were.

This is edging on Great Debates territory, but typically felonies or habitual drug use are a bar to owning firearms. But in this case (state) legalized medical and recreational marijuana users in the 9th district do not have the constitutional right to gun ownership. Also the state (in error) used a 40 year misdemeanor possession conviction to justify confiscation in one case.

Feel free to open a GD thread, but I will argue from a an overall rights perspective that happens to involve the 2nd amendment, but I am not really of a position that would compel me to argue purely the 2nd amendment and gun-rights perspective. My concern would be the impact on other enumerated rights but other members may be willing to debate this topic.

It is not just California and Hawaii had to back off after giving medical marijuana patients 30 days to turn in their guns. They used cross references from their gun registry and their medical pot registry to do so.

For GQ, the reality is that both interested groups, pro-gun and pro-gun control are unwilling to have real discussions on what is required and several of the gun control measures that are being put in place today to appease the voters are known to be unconstitutional and just waiting to be overturned.

With the reminder I am not really in the “pro-gun” group but more of the “frustrated by other rights being violated not directly related to gun ownership camp” consider the recent NYC efforts which for the pro-gun crowd look like “confiscation”

In New York for an example, note the following restriction.



And the related “Mental Hygiene” definitions.



Under Federal law, which is constitutional people who have been adjudicated by a court of law as mentally ill are prohibited, in these state cases the owners have not been adjudicated by a court of law.

O’Connor v. Donaldson (1975), relating to involuntary commitment and Addington v. Texas (1979) relating to the standard of evidence for commitment, Jackson v. Indiana (1972) relating to violation due process by involuntarily committing;

Mix in with District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) with a more conservative court these laws won’t hold. While it may not align with many people on this boards political leaning including mine, the 2nd amendment is a individual right that is incorporated against the states.

Remember that in Foucha v. Louisiana (1992) SCOTUS decided justification for commitment after an insanity acquittal no longer applies, the individual is to be released even in the case of firearm crime.

In the New York case, for someone who is firmly in the pro-gun side, they view the right just as much as a “natural right” as many progressives as myself view equality under the law despite religion or “race”.

If you consider in the New York case, seeking treatment for sever depression after your entire family was killed in some crazy accident the day your wife left and your dog was stolen means that by seeking mental health treatment for a serious health condition puts you at risk of what pro-gun people would view as “confiscation”.

Mix in the very real facts that people who suffer from mental illnesses are over 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population; and despite being ~20% of the population by NY’s definition only commit 3%–5% of violent acts, or lower than their proportion of the population it may be a bit easier to empathize with the other side of the isle.

Some fears of gun confiscation are real, but that doesn’t matter.

For those who are on the pro-gun side the view that the other side is ignoring the 2nd amendment completely.

Playing devils advocate here, outside of the arbitrary removal of constitutional rights for those who seek medical care for mental health needs, which is my pony in this fight.

A rational person can hold the view that NY is violating the following constitutional rights.

  • right to due process
  • prohibition of self-incrimination
  • right to trial by jury
  • right to be notified of the accusations, to confront the accuser, to obtain witnesses and to retain counsel

I think if the gun-control crowd considered the pro-gun crowd as equals and try to think about policies that would address these fears there will be forward movement. I know that this is a bit of a thread drift, but while I may personally not believe the 2nd should be a right on the same level as the others, and I could be convinced to vote to repeal it; as a progressive I think that we need to lead by example and not feed fears by willfully violating other rights because addressing the topic of gun control directly is challenging.

There are more gun suicides than gun homicides in America, and mental health treatment is seriously hindered by by stigmaand a lack of services.

I am making no claim either way on if gun control is better or effective in helping with suicide int his thread, but what you were sold is one of the rhetoric points from my side of the isle.

To be clear I am very much for temporary restraining orders personally, but let me point out the serious problem with California’s law citing a pro-gun control site.

A therapist is not a court of law, and Coffin v. United States (1895) established the presumption of innocence of persons accused of crimes in our country. Therapists in NY and CA have mentioned that they are pressured to over-report. Note how there is not a presumption of innocence or the right to a trial before the second amendment right is revoked.

As anyone who has had a loved one or a relative who does need civil commitment and has been frustrated by the high bar to get their loved one committed (5150) knows the bar is high here due to the links I provided earlier.

While in my world view, the gun control laws are well intended, the legislatures very much know the limitations of case law and many if not most are obviously willfully passing unconstitutional laws; probably because it appeases there voting base, they are frustrated with the challenges of real solutions or perhaps they prioritize the need for gun control over fundamental rights. While I don’t agree with the pro-gun confiscation concerns myself, I can see how a reasonable person with different priorities would have reason for concern.

TLDR; Convicted felons have been prohibited from owning firearms for a very long time, and many these new laws are targeting marginalized minority group often based on a stigma against mental health. These ableist policies are effective for one sides view that they are making progress but are viewable as evidence of a disdain for fundamental human rights for the other side.

Here is a cite that seems to try to be pretty balanced on the risk of mental illness and substance abuse related to violence.


Sorry this is so long and a bit of a hijack, but I couldn’t find a way to answer that question without a huge post. If you can disprove or correct my attempt at a factual assessment above please do. Please free to invite me to a GD thread if you want to discuss the points more in depth.