ATF: Gun traces increased 11 percent in 2017

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. Vasquez has since retired from the agency. (Photo: Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Gun traces spiked double digits in 2017, according to federal data released this week. The National Tracing Center recovered and traced more than 322,000 firearms last year, an 11.3 percent increase over 2016.

Janice Kemp, a spokeswoman with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, told the data suggests increased participation from state and local law enforcement in federal tracing programs.

“The information provides investigative leads to law enforcement and can link a suspect to a firearm in a criminal investigation, help identify potential firearm traffickers, and detect in-state, interstate and international firearms trafficking patterns, including the sources and types of crime guns used,” Kemp said.

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

“The data we glean from traces can be used to highlight the types of firearms being sold or brought into specific states, as well as capture the original state where the firearm was purchased,” Kemp said. “This helps investigators take violent offenders off the streets.”

California ranked number one for most recovered and traced firearms in 2017, according to the data, with more than 41,000 guns intercepted by law enforcement. The ATF said the majority of traces involve 9mm handguns, followed by other pistols, revolvers, rifles and shotguns.

The NTC said it processed more than 408,000 tracing requests last year — the most ever recorded in the center’s 30-year history.

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