National Tracing Center

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The National Tracing Center (NTC) of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is the sole firearms tracing facility in the United States. It provides information to provide federal, state and local law enforcement agencies with suspects for firearm crime investigations, detect suspected firearms traffickers, and track the intrastate and international movement of firearms. Congressional restrictions are in place to prevent the release of firearms trace information to anyone other than law enforcement agencies, however, this restriction does not apply to participating foreign countries or agencies. The only restriction is by Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed by the agency receiving eTrace software.

The NTC is located on a 10-acre (40,000 m2) secure site in Martinsburg, W.Va. This facility also houses ATF's Violent Crime Analysis Branch, Firearms Technology Branch, Firearms Testing Range, Brady Operations Branch, ATF's Gun Vault Collection, the Federal Explosives Licensing Center, Imports Branch, NFA Branch, and will soon house the Federal Firearms Licensing Center.[1]

Features - Computer Systems[edit]

Firearms Tracing System (FTS).
The ATF Firearms Tracing System (FTS) within the National Tracing Center (NTC) contains firearm tracing information from all traces performed since 1989. In 2003, over 460,000 Multiple Firearm Sales reports (ATF F 3310.4 - a registration record with specific firearms and owner name and address) had been entered into the system, and was increasing by about 140,000 per year. Further, all guns "suspected" as being used for criminal purposes, as well over 1.2 million (in 2002) detail results from all traces (which includes Names and Addresses of all known sellers and purchasers) had been entered. The system includes data manually collected from Out-of-Business records and entered into the tracing system by ATF personnel. ATF reports over 400 million firearms transaction records in the Firearms Tracing System - far more than the total number of firearms in the United States.

The basis for ATF to trace a firearm is make, model and serial number. Serial numbers on guns are not sacrosanct. Recording of serial numbers by ATF, police or dealers is subject to human error, as it is easy to misread a serial (for example: confusing the number 0 with the letter O, 2 with Z, or 5 with S), omit a digit or two, or transpose a couple of numbers.[2] These and similar errors when entering a serial into the tracing system result in false traces. Certain categories of firearms simply cannot be traced because of multiple duplicate serial numbers, which will result in multiple false traces. Criminals can easily add a number or letter to a serial on a gun, or completely replace it with a false number. According to the ATF National Tracing Center data, an invalid serial number was the most common reason for unsuccessful traces from Mexico, but it's not clear from the report how a serial number can be "invalid".[3]

Once a gun is traced, even falsely or in error, and no matter how innocent the buyer, the first (and any known subsequent) owner's personal data is permanently retained in the ATF trace file and sent to any law enforcement agency asking for the trace. It is documented that to attempt to accomplish a trace, Law Enforcement will frequently enter partial serial numbers to attempt a match, which results in additional false traces.

The ATF Firearms Tracing System (FTS) contains firearm tracing information from millions of traces performed since 1989, and consists of several databases:

1. Multiple Sale Reports. Over 460,000 (2003) Multiple Sales reports (ATF F 3310.4 - a registration record with specific firearms and owner name and address - increasing by about 140,000 per year). Reported as 4.2 million records in 2010.[4]
2. Suspect Guns. All guns "suspected" of being used for criminal purposes but not recovered by law enforcement. This database includes (ATF's own examples), individuals purchasing large quantities of firearms (including collectors of older firearms rarely used in crime), and dealers with "improper" record keeping. May include guns "observed" by law enforcement in an estate, or at a gun show, or elsewhere. Reported as 34,807 in 2010.[4]
3. Traced Guns. Over 1.2 million (2002) detail results from all traces. ATF reported 343,746 guns were traced in 2009, and a total of 4 million traces since inception.[4] This is a registration record which includes Names and Addresses of the first seller and purchaser, and possibly subsequent purchasers.
4. Out of Business Records. Data is manually collected from paper Out-of-Business records (or input from computer records) and entered into the trace system by ATF. These are registration records which include name and address, make, model, serial and caliber of the firearm(s), as well as data from the 4473 form - in digital or image format. In March, 2010, ATF reported receiving several hundred million records since 1968.[1]
5. Theft Guns. Firearms reported as stolen to ATF. Contained 330,000 records in 2010.[4] Contains only thefts from licensed dealers and interstate carriers (optional).[4] Does not have an interface to the FBI's National Crime Information Center (NCIC) theft data base, where the majority of thefts are reported.

For newer firearms not yet entered into the tracing system, ATF contacts the manufacturer or importer, wholesaler, and individual dealer to determine the identity of the first retail purchaser.

The Firearm Tracing System provides manual & automated data retrieval from:

  1. All previous firearms traces from all sources,
  2. Dealer, Importer, and Manufacturer computer, paper or microfilm "Bound Book" Out-of-Business records (including digital files required by ATF Ruling 2008-2),
  3. Dealer "Bound Book" records (computer and/or paper) copied by ATF during annual inspections.
  4. ATF Form 4473 copied from dealers during annual inspections and in Out-of-Business records.
  5. Multiple Firearm Sales reports (ATF F 3310.4)
  6. Traditional phone calls to the manufacturer, distributor and final selling dealer, and
  7. Additional data sources, such as some state firearms sales records.
  8. Dealer "Bound Books" over 20 years old voluntarily sent in to ATF.
  9. Includes some antique firearms allowed to be entered in "Bound Books".
  10. Stolen firearms reported to ATF.
  11. System 2000 automated retrieval system from manufacturers, importers and distributors (48 companies as of 2009)
  12. Certain firearms dealers are required by ATF to report certain used firearms transaction to ATF for entry into the Firearms Tracing System

Once a gun is traced, even falsely or in error, and no matter how innocent the buyer, the first (and rarely, any known subsequent) owner's personal data is permanently retained in the trace file. Many older firearms from the same manufacturer have identical serial numbers, which will result in multiple erroneous traces. It is also documented that in attempts to accomplish a trace, Law Enforcement will frequently enter partial serial numbers to attempt a match, which results in additional false traces. Other firearms data has been included in this tracing system, but the sources are obscure. There are reports that some state firearm registration systems have been loaded into the tracing system. In a press release, New Jersey admits posting all police records of gun purchases into the ATF Firearms Tracing System through eTrace. By state law, New York and Connecticut require tracing all purchased firearms.

"Each gun found by Chicago police--more than 10,000 annually--is traced and categorized by serial number, where it was found, if it was used in a crime and who bought it when and where. Computers can quickly display information such as where guns recovered on certain Chicago blocks are coming from or turn the data around to show where guns bought at out-of-state gun stores are turning up." (Source: The Chicago Regional Crime Gun Center, run by the field intelligence group of ATF)

Online LEAD
Online LEAD is a system available to all state and local law enforcement in the U.S. at ATF field offices throughout the country, with access to more than 100 million firearms transaction records (reported in 2001) in the ATF Firearms Tracing System (see data sources above). Online LEAD was developed in partnership with Idea Integration, K.W. Tunnell Company Federal Services Group, and ATF, first launched on in November 1999.

"ATF special agents are privy to the names and addresses of any individuals involved in multiple sales transactions or ... gun traces (including false, erroneous and innocent traces) where the individual is the purchaser, possessor, and/or associate in the transaction." (Prosecutor's Guide to the ATF, 2003)

eTrace System
eTrace is a method of world-wide internet access to millions of registration records in the Firearms Tracing System! ATF publicized global access in 'United Nations Disarmament Marking and Tracing Workshops' held in Nairobi, Kenya in December, 2007, Lomé, Togo in April, 2008, Rio de Janeiro in June, 2008, and other locations. Over 17,000 individuals representing over 2000 law enforcement agencies around the world have access to American gun owner personal information. Tracing data is of no value without identifying the suspect (individual purchaser by name & address), so ATF specifically provides "a description of the original retail purchaser" to the requester. In GAO Report 09-709, ATF reports the National Tracing Center, "conducts the gun traces, and returns information on their findings to the submitting party" (including corrupt Mexican Police).

American gun owner names and addresses, detailed personal information (including Social Security Number) from 4473 forms, and detail on the guns by purchaser name or firearm serial number is directly available to some 31 foreign governments, including governments with known corruption issues. Trace requests have been accepted by ATF from 58 foreign governments (some with possible terrorist connections). Columbia and Mexico (both with known corruption issues) were provided with their own in-country tracing centers (staffed by foreign nationals) with full access to ATF registration records. Columbia was provided (at taxpayer expense) with a Joint ATF-CNP Center for Anti-Explosives Information and Firearms Tracing (CIARA) which opened on December 6, 2006. In Mexico, The National Center for Information, Analysis and Planning in order to Fight Crime (CENAPI) was established in 2003. ATF admits these are models for planned future tracing centers throughout Central and South America, and the Caribbean Basin (ATF Congressional Budget Submission, 2010). There seems to be little concern for privacy protection for American gun purchasers.

Countries formally provided with eTrace software and access to American gun owner names and addresses include: Mexico, Columbia, Suriname, Tobago, Guyana, Canada, Germany, Bahamas, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Barbados, Anguilla, Antigua, Barbuda, Aruba, Curaçao, Dominica, Grenada, St Vincent, Grenadines St. Lucia, Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama, St. Kitts, Nevis, several Caribbean police forces, Britain, Australia, Japan, Belgium, and Finland

A number of these countries and police agencies have serious corruption issues or known anti-firearms bias. ATF plans to add more countries in the near future.

A Spanish-language version of the eTrace System been deployed to Mexico, Guatemala and Costa Rica (ATF Press Release 30 Dec 2009). All three countries have serious police corruption issues. A second phase release is planned for Spanish-speaking countries throughout Central and South America, as well as the entire Caribbean Basin. ATF also admits a specific goal to provide eTrace software to all 31 states within the Republic of Mexico. (William Hoover, Assistant Director, Field Operations, ATF, Feb. 7, 2008).

N-Focis

Another system that ties much of the bureau's information together is called N-Focis, for National Field Office Case Information System. It has four parts:

  1. N-Force, which supports the agency's criminal law enforcement activities, including investigations of firearms law violations, weapons smuggling and interagency task force projects
  2. N-Spect, which manages records for regulatory case enforcement
  3. N-Quire, which is built on N-Force and serves as an intelligence analytical tool for major investigations and to provide management information to command posts
  4. TMS, a text management system designed to search for text strings within the other databases and, eventually, to hold audio and video files.

The overall concept behind this is a centralized database where information is stored and can be queried or manipulated by anyone with authorization.[5]

Once they have that information we can relate entities within the database. They can relate an individual to a vehicle or one person to another.[6]

Controversies[edit]

The Firearms Owners' Protection Act, signed into law in 1986, specifically forbids registration of firearms records at 18 U.S.C. 926(a):

"No such rule or regulation prescribed after the date of the enactment of the Firearms Owners' Protection Act may require that records required to be maintained under this chapter or any portion of the contents of such records, be recorded at or transferred to a facility owned, managed, or controlled by the United States or any State or any political subdivision thereof, nor that any system of registration of firearms, firearms owners, or firearms transactions or dispositions be established."

The wording makes it clear that it does not matter if the registration systems are manual or automated, nor if paper records or electronic - all are specifically prohibited. ATF maintains that the Firearms Tracing System was created before their Firearms Owner Protection Act was enacted, and is therefore exempt.[citation needed] United States firearms owners may not agree.[citation needed] Regardless of the semantics, (the "spin"), the ATF is building a massive automated "system of registration of firearms, firearms owners, or firearms transactions or dispositions" in the guise of the Firearms Tracing System.[citation needed]

The Federal Budget Appropriations Bills, including the Tiahrt Amendment, have included the following wording:

"Provided, That no funds appropriated herein shall be available for salaries or administrative expenses in connection with consolidating or centralizing, within the Department of Justice, the records, or any portion thereof, of acquisition and disposition of firearms maintained by Federal firearms licensees:"

Nevertheless, in apparent violation of the intent and letter of the law,[7][dubious ] ATF (within the Department of Justice) continues to consolidate and centralize records (and portions of records) maintained by Federal firearms licensees into the Firearms Tracing System.[citation needed]

Further, the Bill forbids the searching of "Out of Business" records by name. Yet in documents published by ATF and others, the eTrace capability to search by name is specifically mentioned.[8]

ATF has consistently acknowledged the appropriations restriction and 18 U.S.C. 926(a), yet continues to consolidate and centralize all possible Acquisition/Disposition records in defiance of the law.[9] ATF proclaimed that by not creating new "rules or regulations" (until Ruling 2008-2), they haven't violated 18 U.S.C. 926(a). This technicality is intended to evade the law and thwart the Will of Congress.[9] By issuing Ruling 2008-2, ATF is blatantly violating the law.[9]

As a direct result of foreign traces, either through eTrace of by direct contact to ATF, the identity of the first selling dealer, and the name and address of the first purchaser (along with other supporting information) is provided to the foreign law enforcement as a gun trafficking suspect.[citation needed]

The average age of traced firearms is over ten years, and fifteen years for seized Mexican guns that are traced. The statute of limitations for "straw purchases" is five years. Consequently, the majority of firearms traces are useless for law enforcement purposes, especially for guns recovered out of Mexico.

History[edit]

History of Out-of-Business Record Systems

Before 1991, ATF kept the Out-of-Business records in paper hard copy filed at the Out-of-Business Records Center. In 1991, they began a major project to microfilm the paper records and destroy the hard copy. This project not only included the licensee's "Bound Book" (Acquisition/Disposition records), but also every ATF Form 4473, which contains name, address, height, weight, race, date of birth, place of birth, and driver's license number (or other ID). (GAO Report T-GGD-96-104, 04/25/96)

Computer Assisted Retrieval System (CARS)

In 1992, ATF began creating a computerized "index" (based on firearm serial number and dealer license number) to the microfilmed Out-of-Business records. Data was originally captured on minicomputers and transferred to a mainframe computer database. The retrieval system, called "CARS" (Computer Assisted Retrieval System), was disclosed in a 1995 letter to Tanya K. Metaksa of the NRA. By 2000, ATF revealed they had indexed 100 million such records, with over 300 million additional records scheduled to be added over the following two years. (Commerce in Firearms, ATF, 2000) Over 400 million firearm transaction records were to be indexed by 2002 – about twice the total estimated number of firearms in the United States at that time.

(Notwithstanding the conclusions of the Government Accounting Office in 1996 that this system complied with legislative restrictions, this combination of automated and manual retrieval of individual sales records is a de facto system of registration of firearms, firearm owners and firearm transaction specifically prohibited by 18 U.S.C. 926(a).)

Microfilm Retrieval System (MRS)

By March, 2004, ATF acknowledged the existence of their advanced automated Microfilm Retrieval System (MRS) containing information on 380 million firearms with an additional 1 million firearms added per month. This system had been enlarged from the previous system (CARS) to contain not only firearm serial numbers, but the manufacturer and importer as well. Additional data fields have been added to help identify specific firearms. (April Pattavina, 2005)

More recently (since at least 2005), ATF has been converting microfilmed dealer out-of-business records to "digital images". It is not clear whether this is a digitized "picture" file of the microfilm, or a digital record of each individual acquisition/disposition. (Regardless of the storage method, and whether access to the detail A/D record is automated or manual, this system is precisely a system of registration of firearms, firearm owners and firearm transactions specifically prohibited by 18 U.S.C. 926(a).)

In a paper presented to the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva, Switzerland, published in 2003, Gary L. Thomas, Chief, Firearms Programs Division, ATF, discussed the planned digitization of Out-of-Business dealer, importer, and manufacturer records, mentioned the projected cost, and noted it would not require any legislative or regulatory changes. Shortly thereafter, the digitization project appeared in the Congressional Appropriations Bill.

From the 2005 Appropriations Bill:

"Conversion of Records. The conferees recognize the need for ATF to complete the conversion of tens of thousands of existing Federal firearms dealer out-of-business records from film to digital images at the ATF National Tracing Center. Once the out-of-business records are fully converted, search time for these records will be reduced significantly. The conference agreement includes $4,200,000 for the ATF to hire additional contract personnel to continue the conversion and integration of records."

However, since 1979, Appropriations Bills specifically prohibited centralizing these same records:

"Provided, That no funds appropriated herein shall be available for salaries or administrative expenses in connection with consolidating or centralizing, within the Department of Justice, the records, or any portion thereof, of acquisition and disposition of firearms maintained by Federal firearms licensees:"

In the 2008 Appropriations Bill, the Tiahrt Amendment further restricted the disclosure of data from the Firearms Tracing System.

Definition of ATF Firearms Terms[edit]

"Crime Gun: Any firearm that is illegally possessed, used in crime, or suspected to have been used in crime. An abandoned firearm may also be categorized as a crime gun if it is suspected it was used in a crime or illegally possessed. Under this definition, most, but not all, traced firearms are crime guns. (However, ATF refers to all traced firearms as "crime guns" whether involved in a crime or not) Firearms trace data, however, are limited and may be biased by several factors:
• traced firearms are generally recovered by law enforcement, and they may not be representative of firearms possessed and used by criminals;
• there remains significant variation over time and from jurisdiction to jurisdiction as to "when, why, and how" a firearm is recovered and selected to be traced; and
• a substantial percentage of recovered firearms cannot be successfully traced for several reasons....".[10]

Suspect Gun: A suspect gun is a firearm that has not been recovered by law enforcement but is suspected to be involved in criminal activity. It is flagged in the Firearms Tracing System (FTS) so that if and when it is recovered and traced by a law enforcement agency, the criminal investigations can be coordinated. A few of ATF's own examples: individuals purchasing large quantities of firearms (including collectors of older firearms rarely used in crime), and dealers with "improper" record keeping. ATF frequently refers to these firearms as "Crime Guns", but this is misleading. Most were traced by Law Enforcement for some other reason. Some were traced because they were innocently carried in a car. Others were traced because they were found in an apartment house where an unrelated crime occurred. Other firearms, particularly from Mexican sources, were traced simply because mere possession is a crime in Mexico. If ATF (or the police) take guns into custody from a collector (even if completely innocent), the guns are traced. Other sources of innocent traces include gun "buy-back" schemes and guns voluntarily turned in to the police from estates and other sources. By state law, New York and Connecticut require tracing of all firearms.

Time to Crime: The period of time (measured in days) between a firearm's retail sale and law enforcement's recovery of the firearm in connection with a crime. (ATF notes it can be the time between the first retail sale and the trace or law enforcement possession. It may have no connection to any crime).

Firearms Theft: Federal firearms licensees (FFL) are required to report the theft or loss of firearms in their inventory to ATF so that if and when they are recovered and traced by a law enforcement agency, the criminal investigations can be coordinated. It is not known if ATF's database includes stolen firearms from the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) program.

Interstate Theft: Interstate carriers can voluntarily report the theft or loss of firearms in transit so that if and when they are recovered and traced by a law enforcement agency, the criminal investigations can be coordinated.

Obliterated Serial Number: Allows law enforcement agencies to submit firearms trace requests with partial serial numbers from crime guns recovered with obliterated serial numbers in order to identify the crime gun and develop investigative leads. This results in false (erroneous) traces.

International Tracing: ATF traces firearms for foreign law enforcement agencies to provide suspects for investigative leads, detect suspected firearms traffickers and to suggest international arms trafficking routes. More than 50 countries annually submit trace requests to the NTC, and over 30 have direct access through eTrace.

Out-Of-Business Records: When an FFL discontinues business, the FFL must send their firearms transactions records to the NTC. The NTC receives an average of 1.2 million out-of-business records per month and is the only repository for these records within the United States.

Multiple Sales Program: When an FFL sells two or more handguns to the same purchaser within five consecutive business days the FFL is required to submit a report of multiple sales to the NTC. The NTC receives an average of 140,000 reports of multiple sales from licensees each year. These reports, when cross referenced with firearms trace information for recovered crime guns, can be an important indicator in detecting illegal firearms trafficking.

Record Search Requests: By searching the out-of-business FFL records, the NTC can assist law enforcement agencies investigating the theft of firearms to obtain firearms serial numbers. This is conducted when the owner has no record of the firearm serial number and the FFL from whom the owner purchased the firearm is now out of business.

Certified Trace Requests: The NTC certifies firearms trace records and FFL out-of-business records for ATF and U.S. prosecutors for criminal court purposes. All information is validated for accuracy.

Demand Project: The NTC sends certified demand letters to non-compliant FFLs who repeatedly fail to respond to firearms trace requests within the required timeframe, and to FFLs who repeatedly sell firearms with short time-to-crime traces. (The time-to-crime is the period of time between the sale of a firearm and the use of that firearm in a crime.) Location

References[edit]

External links[edit]