ATF: Firearm tracing requests hit all-time high

ATF Firearms Specialist Richard Vasquez is surrounded by a cache of firearms in the gun vault on March 5, 2010, at the ATF National Tracing Center in Martinsburg, West Virginia. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

ATF Firearms Specialist Richard Vasquez is surrounded by a cache of firearms in the gun vault on March 5, 2010, at the ATF National Tracing Center in Martinsburg, West Virginia. (Photo: Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Firearm tracing requests are at an all time high, exceeding 400,000 so far this year — the most ever recorded in the National Tracing Center‘s 29-year-history, the agency said Tuesday.

The NTC completed just over 373,000 gun traces for federal law enforcement in 2015, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Traces categorized as “urgent” are prioritized and investigated within 24 hours. The rest — considered “routine,” the bureau said — take about five days to complete.

“These traces are an investigative resource available to federal, state, local, tribal, and international law enforcement agencies who have signed agreements with ATF,” the bureau said in a Facebook post Tuesday. “Tracing provides information and leads that assist law enforcement in linking potential suspects to a firearm in criminal investigations; detecting firearms trafficking patterns; and helping identify trends in the movement of crime guns.”

The NTC is the only agency authorized to track firearms in the United States. It’s headquarters, located in Martinsburg, West Virginia, house a stash of 17,000 firearms and an untold number of Form 4473s and other hard copy documents necessary to complete their investigations. Federal law restricts the creation of any digital, searchable database of gun sales or gun owners. Agents at the NTC use the archaic system to track the movement of firearms from its manufacturer to the original point of sale in the commercial market “to identify an unlicensed purchaser.”

“That information can help to link a suspect to a firearm in a criminal investigation and identify potential traffickers,” the NTC said. “Firearms tracing can detect in-state, interstate and international patterns in the sources and types of crime guns. ATF processes crime gun trace requests for thousands of domestic and international law enforcement agencies each year. It also traces U.S.-sourced firearms recovered in foreign countries for law enforcement agencies in those countries.”

The ATF released 2016 tracing data for Mexico, Canada, Central America and the Caribbean in August.