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The following white paper on the eTrace system was sent to TTAG anonymously.

Only two steps remain for The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to accomplish full registration of all firearms and firearms owners in the United States: 1) Require all firearm sales to go through a licensed dealer. 2) Require dealers to periodically report all firearm sales to the National Tracing Center . . .

Contrary to the Intent of Congress and in violation of 18 U.S.C. 926(a), for over 20 years, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF – the Agency that brought us Waco and Ruby Ridge) has been quietly building a massive, centralized, backdoor Registration System for Firearms, Firearm Owners and Firearm Transactions.

The 1986 Firearms Owners’ Protection Act 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 is clear. It does not matter if the registration systems are manual or automated, nor if they are paper records or electronic – all are specifically prohibited. ATF violation of the law is equally clear.

Out-of-Business Records

By law and regulation, when a firearms dealer, importer, or manufacturer dies or goes out of business, the Acquisition/ Disposition records (“Bound Book”) kept by the business, must be delivered to the ATF Out-of-Business Center (ATF National Tracing Center). Currently (according to the 2010 ATF Budget Submission), over 1.2 million records per month are turned in to ATF.

On August 25, 2008, ATF issued Ruling 2008-2, allowing Federal Firearms License (FFL) holders to keep the Acquisition/ Disposition “Bound Book” on a computer without prior approval. However, when the FFL goes out of business, the ATF ruling requires a computer (digital) file and file description be provided to the ATF Out-of-Business Records Center – in addition to a printout of the “bound A/D book”.

Since ATF kindly allows dealers to also record antique firearms in the A/D book, these records are also turned in to ATF. This is an official ATF Ruling issued after 1986 (see above quote), thus specifically violates 18 U.S.C. 926(a) as a rule requiring the digital file to be “transferred to a facility owned, managed, or controlled by the United States”. Each of these digital files is a “system of registration of firearms, firearms owners, or firearms transaction or dispositions” specifically prohibited by 18 U.S.C. 926(a).

Obviously, ATF intends to make use of those digital records, which include the Name and Address of every Buyer and every Seller for each gun, as well as the Manufacturer, Model, Caliber and Serial of each firearm.

In fact, each set of Out-of-Business digital records is precisely a system of registration of firearms, firearm owners and firearm transactions specifically prohibited by 18 U.S.C. 926(a). Thus far, ATF has not revealed what they are doing with these digital files. It is a simple task to search these digital files for specific names or addresses, or to extract all purchasers of 9mm handguns, or combine all digital Out-of-Business files into one large registration database.

History of Out-of-Business Record Systems

Before 1991, ATF kept Out-of-Business records in paper hard copy filed at the Out-of-Business Records Center. In 1991, a major project was begun to microfilm 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 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.

The Government Accounting Office concluded in 1996 that this system complied with legislative restrictions. However; 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 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 was enlarged from the previous system (CARS) to contain not only firearm serial numbers, but the manufacturer and importer as well. Additional data fields were 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 prohibit 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 disclosure of data from the Firearms Tracing System.

With convoluted logic, ATF consistently acknowledges 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. ATF has proclaimed that by not creating new “rules or regulations” (until Ruling 2008-2), they haven’t violated 18 U.S.C. 926(a). This obvious technicality is intended to evade the law and thwart the Will of Congress. By issuing Ruling 2008-2, ATF is blatantly violating the law.

Firearms Tracing System (FTS)

The ATF Firearms Tracing System (FTS) contains firearm tracing information from all traces performed since 1989. It includes 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), all guns “suspected” as being used for criminal purposes, and over 1.2 million (2002) detail results from all traces (which includes Names and Addresses of all known sellers and purchasers). This includes data manually collected from Out-of-Business records and entered into the trace system by ATF.

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

  • All previous firearms traces from all sources,
  • Dealer, Importer, and Manufacturer computer and paper “Bound Book” Out-of-Business records (including digital files required by ATF Ruling 2008-2),

  • Dealer “Bound Book” records (computer and/or paper) copied by ATF during annual inspections.

  • ATF Form 4473 copied from dealers and Out-of-Business records.

  • Multiple Firearm Sales reports (ATF F 3310.4)

  • Traditional phone calls to the manufacturer, distributor and final selling dealer, and

  • Additional data sources, such as some state firearms sales records.

  • Dealer “Bound Books” over 20 years old voluntarily sent in to ATF.

  • Includes some antique firearms allowed to be entered in “Bound Books”.

  • Stolen guns reported to ATF.

“Suspect guns” include (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 continually refers to these as “Crime Guns”, but nothing could be further from the truth. Some were certainly used in crime, but 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 seized (and traced) because mere possession is a crime in Mexico.

If ATF (or the police) take guns into custody from a collector (even if he is 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 innocent sources.

In the words of a thirty-year police veteran, only a very small portion of firearms taken into police custody could possibly be considered a “crime gun.” Identifying the first lawful purchaser of a firearm rarely serves any investigatory purpose. Police take hundreds or thousands of firearms into custody as found property, safe-keeping, recovered-stolen or in possession of individuals who have been arrested for some other reason.

In all those cases, according to law enforcement, it is of very little consequence who originally bought the gun from Acme Sporting Goods ten years ago. Police have reported ATF tries to compel them to trace every possible firearm, whether used in a crime or not. This is consistent with ATF’s goal to trace 100% of guns in police custody (as reported in 2007).

Dealers have reported ATF agents copying huge numbers of 4473 forms during annual inspections and photographing A/D Books, and it’s been further reported these records are being entered into the ATF tracing system.

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 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 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 of all such 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 ATF field intelligence group.)

The Firearms Tracing System is filled with irrelevant data from which ATF attempts to make nonsensical connections. Simply throwing irrelevant data into a records system will not ensure any meaningful result. (See Garbage In, Garbage Out in the Conclusions below). Untold millions of taxpayer dollars are spent to create, maintain and enlarge this questionable system.

Whether all ATF systems of firearms records are combined into one huge data base is unknown. Regardless, from a data processing standpoint, each system can easily be linked to all other systems and subsystems for tracing and registration purposes – effectively expanding into a massive registration database. Each individual set of firearms records is a system of registration of firearms, firearm owners and firearm transactions specifically prohibited by 18 U.S.C. 926(a).

ATF offers on-line access to the Firearms Tracing System (FTS) by at least three systems.

  1. Online LEAD

Online LEAD is a system available to all state and local law enforcement 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)

  1. 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, Seoul, Korea in May, 2008, Rio de Janeiro in June, 2008, and other locations.

ATF reported (in 2007) some 10,000 individuals representing over 1620 law enforcement agencies around the world (now expanded to over 2,000 agencies) have access to our personal information. Tracing data is of no value without identifying the individual purchaser (name & address), so ATF specifically provides “a description of the original retail purchaser”) to the requestor.

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. (See below).

The Tiahrt Amendment and the 2008 Appropriations Bill specifically (financially) prohibits ATF from disclosing certain personal information from the Firearms Tracing System and retrieving information by name. However, foreign governments and agencies are under no such restriction. There is no legal restriction to prevent retrieving all gun purchases under your name and disclosing it to anyone.

Your name and address, detailed personal information from 4473 forms, and detail on your guns by your name or serial number is now directly available to 33 foreign governments, including governments with known corruption issues.

Trace requests have been accepted by ATF from 58 foreign governments (some with 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 has the Joint ATF-CNP Center for Anti-Explosives Information and Firearms Tracing (CIARA) which opened on December 6, 2006) and in Mexico, The National Center for Information, Analysis and Planning in order to Fight Crime (CENAPI) was established in 2003.

ATF admits these centers are models for planned future tracing centers throughout Central and South America, and the Caribbean Basin (ATF Congressional Budget Submission, 2010). Where is the privacy protection for American gun owners?

In April, 2010 the author of “U.S. Firearms Trafficking to Mexico: New Data and Insights Illuminate Key Trends and Challenges” by Goodman and Marizco, interviewed an ATF official in Washington who admitted, “If a trace is successful, Mexican authorities receive information from ATF such as when the firearm was purchased, the name of the person that purchased the firearm, and the total number of firearms the person may have purchased. “ Since a name alone is useless for identification purposes (there must be a million people named ‘John Smith’ in the United States), additional information certainly is provided.

Countries formally provided with eTrace software and access to American gun owner names and addresses include:

Costa Rica
Dominican Republic
El Salvador
St. Kitts
St. Lucia
St Vincent,

The ATF plans to add more “members” in the near future.

In 2009, ATF deployed a special agent (based in El Salvador) to serve as a regional firearms adviser in Central America, and provided eTrace to all seven SICA member nations in Central America. Further, in that same year, an eTrace Memorandum of Understanding was signed with 14 out of 15 Caribbean states.

A Spanish language version of the eTrace System has now been deployed to Mexico, Guatemala and Costa Rica (ATF Press Release 30 Dec 2009). ATF 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).

Did anyone notice news reports that the Mexican Army recently disarmed corrupt Mexican Police in the cities of Tijuana, Cancun, Rosarito, Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa and Matamoros? And arrested a number of Police Commanders in Mexico City? Yet, during FY 2007, 2008 and 2009, ATF conducted many eTrace training sessions for Mexican Police (over 961 Mexican police officers) in several Mexican cities, including (guess where?) Mexico City, Tijuana, Nuevo Laredo, and Matamoros. (GAO Report 09-709)

The most corrupt police in all of Mexico have been trained by ATF to enter and retrieve eTrace gun data and retrieve American gunowner personal information.

According to Mexican and U.S. government officials, extensive corruption at the federal, state, and local levels of Mexican law enforcement impedes U.S. efforts to develop effective and dependable partnerships with Mexican government entities in combating arms trafficking. Mexican federal authorities are implementing anticorruption measures . . . but government officials acknowledge fully implementing these reforms will take considerable time, and may take years to affect comprehensive change . . .

According to Mexican government officials, corruption pervades all levels of Mexican law enforcement—federal, state, and local. (GAO Report 09-709, June 2009).

On August 30, 2010, Mexican officials announced that 3,200 Federal police officers (nearly 10%) had been fired for corruption or incompetence. In the same article, the Associated Press reported, “Police corruption at all levels is widespread in Mexico.”

“Almost half of Mexican police officers examined this year have failed background and security tests, a figure that rises to nearly 9 of 10 cops in the border state of Baja California”, as reported by the Mexican Government. Other reports indicate the Mexican Army may be just as corrupt as the Mexican Police. Nothing can prevent corrupt or incompetent police (foreign or U.S.) from making false, phony or fraudulent traces and retrieving American gunowner personal information for their own purposes.

Should we be uneasy because a corrupt Mexican Police official has our personal information as a result of an erroneous trace? The next time we travel in Mexico, will the Mexican Police take a special interest in us because of false or fraudulent traces? When we cross the border, will corrupt Mexican Police send someone from a drug cartel to visit our homes to collect our firearms while we are gone?

The eTrace system is doing a grave disservice to American Citizens by placing us at risk when we travel to foreign countries – and when we return. Further, if your name innocently (or otherwise) shows up on a foreign trace, you will be placed on ATF and foreign gun trafficker suspect lists. When we return from foreign travel, will we be detained by U.S. Customs because of erroneous traces?

3. 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,’ said William Temple, special agent and program manager for N-Force in ATF’s Software Management Branch of the Information Services Division.”

‘Once we have that information we can relate entities within the database. We can relate an individual to a vehicle or one person to another. We are truly exploiting the relational capability of the database.’ ATF’s William Temple.

ATF has integrated the N-Focis subsystems with other systems inside the bureau, such as those at its Firearms Tracing Center . . . (Government Computer News, Mar 04, 2003)


The ATF Firearms Tracing System is a fraud. It purports to trace “crime guns”, but, in fact, is increasingly used as a Firearms Registration System. Innocent gun buyers from years ago are reported to corrupt foreign police and these innocent people are treated as gun trafficking suspects.

According to a 2010 OIG report, in over 75 percent of successful Mexican traces, the gun was originally purchased over 5 years ago, and the information is useless for law enforcement. The full extent of official (and unofficial) foreign police access to names and addresses of American gun owners is unknown.

There is no law to prevent foreign police from accessing and compiling gun ownership lists of Americans by name and address. Such efforts could be surreptitiously funded by ATF, and no one would be the wiser.

We have laws intended to prevent ATF from creating a Registration System in the United States, but these laws are being openly violated by ATF. Foreign police have no such legal constraints, and many have Firearm Registration Systems in their own countries. They can officially use the ATF Firearms Tracing System for their own purposes – and even report banned registration information on American gun owners back to ATF – or anyone else.

Finding “suspects” in the Firearms Tracing System is little different than simply picking names out of the telephone book. If a gun was later sold to another person, traded or sold to a dealer, given as a gift, stolen, or lost, the Tracing System has no way to detect it. The original purchaser is reported as a suspect and his name and address is retained permanently in the Tracing System. Rarely (if ever) is the first purchaser contacted by ATF to ask what happened to the gun. ATF doesn’t want the person to know he is a suspect.

It is becoming increasingly clear that ATF intends to expand the Firearms Tracing System to enter as many firearms sales (or other) transactions as possible. They are laying the groundwork to require sales of all used firearms to be made through licensed dealers – so they will have a record of each firearms transaction. Judging by comments made by ATF officials, it appears their ultimate goal is on-line, internet based firearms registration of every firearms transaction – under the guise of more efficient “tracing”.

To reiterate the first paragraph, only two steps remain for ATF to accomplish full registration of all firearms and firearms owners in the United States: require all firearm sales to go through a licensed dealer and require licensed dealers to periodically report all firearm sales to the National Tracing Center.

If this comes to pass, except for older guns which have never been through a dealer in recent years, all guns and gun owners will have a tracking (registration) record.

Make no mistake – a Firearms Tracing System is a euphemism for a firearms registration system. It does not matter if the system includes all firearms or all owners, nor if the system is manual (paper) or automated (electronic). If the system records and registers “firearms, firearms owners, or firearms transactions or dispositions” it is a clear violation of 18 U.S.C. 926(a).

In a virtual registration manifesto, ATF outlined a path to full firearms registration (tracing) in “Structures And Institutions Necessary To Support The Effective Operation Of A Firearms Tracing Mechanism”, a paper presented to the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva, Switzerland, 2003, by Gary L. Thomas, Chief, Firearms Programs Division, ATF (later Administration Vice President of Glock 2003-2005). Mr. Thomas admitted some “enhancements” to tracing (Registration) required “legislative and regulatory” changes”. (Perhaps by eliminating that troublesome 2nd Amendment, and 18 U.S.C. 926(a)?)

ATF publications clearly document they have no idea how many guns are sold at gun shows and other private sales, but this has not stopped them from publically asserting that “many crime guns and many guns smuggled to Mexico come from gun shows and other private sales”. This intentional exaggeration serves their goal of advocating tracing (registering) all private sales of used guns in addition to dealer sales.

The potential for abuse of registration systems is huge and ominous. For example, records can easily be sorted to report all buyers of .223 (5.56mm) rifles – or .50 BMG rifles, or any individual or street address. Registration systems have been used to disarm citizens in foreign countries. In the United States, these records could be used to locate and confiscate guns in any local area during a “national emergency”. Does anyone remember the brutal gun roundup in New Orleans during Katrina?

Don’t be fooled. Regardless of ATF protests to the contrary, any automated record system containing individual gun owner names and addresses, can easily be accessed and extracted by name and address. Computer software is also readily available to make “ad hoc” inquiries and retrievals which leave no audit trail. In other words, ATF, bureaucrats or foreign police can find all records for certain addresses or specific people, and leave no trace of the inquiry. Corrupt or misguided ATF employees or contractors can download gun owner records for their own purposes – and leave no trace.

All computer systems are vulnerable to hacking, either internally (by employees or contractors), or externally – especially when such systems can be accessed through the internet. Backup copies of the records are especially vulnerable, since access permissions can be changed at will with no trace. It’s possible the Firearms Tracing System could be (or has been) hacked and accessed by outsiders (foreign or domestic) for their own purposes – even by terrorists.

ATF continues to expand tracing functions, and are creating more backdoor firearms registration records than ever before. ATF statutory authority must be challenged. Originally, tracing was intended to be handled by occasional phone calls to the manufacturer or importer, followed by calls to the distributer, and finally to the dealer to identify who originally purchased the firearm. ATF now demands that police trace every gun encountered or in custody, regardless of whether it was used in a crime.

By claiming a need to increase “efficiency” in order to computerize more records under the guise of the Firearm Tracking System, ATF has created a massive backdoor system of registration of firearms, firearm owners and firearm transactions specifically prohibited by 18 U.S.C. 926(a).

The ultimate goal of a firearms tracing system is registration of every new and used firearm and every gun owner. ATF’s Gary L. Thomas, in the 2003 United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research paper mentioned above, referred to the “Gold Standard” of tracing being “web-based registration”, explicitly and consistently forbidden by Congress. Could this be connected with the anticipated United Nations Gun Control Treaty endorsed by Hillary Clinton?

ATF claims these systems are necessary for effective tracing, however, The Firearms Owners Protection Act of 1986 (18 U.S.C. 926(a)) was not put in place for the convenience of ATF, but specifically to curb ATF abuse, protect American firearms owners, and prevent creating a national firearms registration system. Using legal technicalities and convoluted legal logic, ATF has deliberately evaded this law and the appropriations restrictions to justify creating and maintaining backdoor registration systems defying the law and thwarting the Will of Congress and the American People.

Retaining all data from erroneous, false, and phony traces (as well as legitimate traces), adding mostly innocent multiple gun purchase data and throwing more questionable data into the mix does not improve the quality of the output. Allowing corrupt foreign (or domestic) police traces, and providing reports to corrupt foreign police further compounds the problem.

ATF is spending untold millions of taxpayer dollars creating registration (tracing) systems, yet Law Enforcement effectiveness is limited at best, and worthless in many cases. Dr. Paul Blackman put it best in his paper “Uses and Limitations of ATF Tracing Data” in 1998. His conclusion? “Garbage In, Garbage Out”. This old data processing principle describes the fact that computers will unquestioningly process the most nonsensical input data and produce nonsensical output. ATF tries to convince Congress, Law Enforcement, and the American People, that ATF systems produce “Garbage In, Gospel Out”. But such is not the case.

To paraphrase Dr. Blackman: When garbage data is processed (as in ATF Firearms Tracing Systems), garbage will be produced as output. Analyses of tracing data, however performed, are like discussions of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. There is no need to carefully evaluate the data or the analyses; they are worthless. ATF has been forced to publish a disclaimer (the “small print”) with each of their reports which states, “Not all firearms used in crime are traced, and not all firearms traced are used in crime.”

Nevertheless, ATF goes on to refer to traced guns with false and misleading “catch-phrases”. They falsely call every traced gun a “crime gun”. They create meaningless and misleading statistics on “Time to Crime” (in reality “Time to Trace”), mythical most popular crime guns (actually most often traced) and Source States for Recovered Firearms which implies illegal gun trafficking but could be entirely legal interstate used gun transfers or people simply moving to a different state. ATF is using deliberately misleading phrases and being openly and fundamentally dishonest with Congress and the American People. This is a serious situation.

ATF inappropriately uses these mythical statistics to target certain gun dealers. Each trace records the first selling dealer in addition to the first retail purchaser. ATF compiles the number of mythical “crime gun” traces for each dealer. Dealers showing the most traces (basically all high-volume dealers) are targeted for intense additional scrutiny during annual inspections in an attempt to drive these dealers out of business.

Although ATF personnel know differently, they consistently (and falsely) report to the press and Congress that “Over 90 percent of the crime guns seized in Mexico originates from sources in the U.S.” (Congressional Budget Submission, 2010). In fact, the actual percentage is less than 25 percent

Of the guns actually submitted for tracing between 2005-2009, on the average, only 28% were successful, and of the successful traces, only 18 percent were sold in the United States within the past 3 years. In other words, out of every 100 guns seized in Mexico, less than 25 are submitted for tracing. Of that 25, only 7 are successfully traced, and of that 7, only 1 was sold in the United States within the past 3 years. So, for every 100 guns seized in Mexico, only 1 could be successfully traced for law enforcement purposes. Not a sterling record for ATF or eTrace.

Perhaps ATF personnel have read “How to Lie with Statistics” by Darrell Huff, written in 1954. Processing garbage data into meaningless statistics is much worse than worthless – it is dishonest and deliberately misleading. By manipulating data, statistics can easily be produced to show whatever ATF wants to show – even patterns of “Gun Trafficking”, “criminal” use of “assault rifles” or “Saturday Night Specials”. Over 100 years ago, Mark Twain said it very well, “Figures don’t lie, but liars do figure”; Lenin went on to say, “A lie told often enough becomes truth”.

In a newsletter dated September 24, 2010, the National Rifle Association reported on a September, 2010 Office of the Inspector General Working Draft Report on Project Gunrunner. The GAO found “most trace requests… submitted to ATF from Mexico are considered ‘unsuccessful.” Only 27 percent of traces between 2007 and 2009, on firearms seized in Mexico, were successful. [Of that 27 percent, 75% were over 5 years old and considered useless for law enforcement purposes]

The report notes, “Mexican law enforcement authorities do not view gun tracing as an important investigative tool. . . . One Mexican official stated that U.S. officials talk of eTrace as if it is a ‘panacea’ but that it does nothing for Mexican law enforcement. An official in the Mexico Attorney General’s office told us he felt eTrace is ‘some kind of bad joke.'”

The NRA newsletter reports: “To its credit, the draft report correctly points out that Mexico requests BATFE to trace only about one quarter of the firearms that it seizes from the cartels, a fact which implies that a significant share of the cartels’ guns come from countries other than the United States. To put it simply, if the Mexican police recover a machine gun with Communist Chinese markings on it, they know it didn’t come from the U.S., and they are not going to waste time requesting a trace from BATFE. The Mexicans are interested in squashing the cartels, not in racking up trace numbers to spruce up BATFE press releases.”

Information in this report was compiled from official News Reports and government sources, including speeches by ATF employees, ATF Official Papers, Reports and Publications, ATF Testimony before Congress, Government Accounting Office (GAO) Reports, and many other sources.


Partial Bibliography:

ATF Regulatory Actions, November, 2000
ATF’s database fires four barrels, Government Computer News, Mar 04, 2003
City Of Chicago, Plaintiff-Appellee v. United States Department Of Treasury, Bureau Of Alcohol, Tobacco And Firearms, Defendant-Appellant, 2002
Commerce in Firearms, ATF, 2000
Comprehensive Firearms Tracing, Philip J. Cook & Anthony A. Braga, Arizona Law Review, 2001
Congressional Budget Submission, Fiscal Year 2010, ATF
Counting Mexico’s Guns,, April, 2009.
eTrace: Internet-based Firearms Tracing and Analysis, Department of State Fact Sheet, April, 2009
Federal Firearms Regulations Reference Guide, 2005, ATF Publication 5300.4
Firearms And Explosives Data Integration Meeting Agenda, Martinsburg, WV, November 9-10, 1994
Firearms Trafficking, Government Accounting Office Report GAO-09-709, June 2009.
GAO Report GG 96104, 1996
GAO Report GG 96174, 1996
GAO Report T-GGD-96-104
Gun Control, Congressional Research Service, William J. Krouse, 2009
Idea Integration, a unit of Modis Incorporated, subsidiary of Modis Professional Services, Inc. Press Release, August, 2000
Information Technology and the Criminal Justice System, April Pattavina, 2005
MILVETS Report on current projects, including ATF Information retrieval, microfilming, imaging and other information technology support services,
Privacy Impact Assessment for the eTrace, ATF May 30, 2006
Prosecutor’s Guide to the ATF, Bureau of Justice Assistance, U.S. Department of Justice, 2003
Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy, Office of National Drug Control Strategy, June, 2009
Statement Of William Hoover, Assistant Director for Field Operations Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, United States Department Of Justice Before The United States Senate Committee On The Judiciary Subcommittee On Crime And Drugs Concerning “Law Enforcement Responses To Mexican Drug Cartels” Presented March 17, 2009.
Statement Of William Hoover, Assistant Director For Field Operations Bureau Of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms And Explosives Before The United States House Of Representatives Committee On Foreign Affairs Subcommittee On The Western Hemisphere February 7, 2008
Statement of William Newell, Special Agent in Charge, Phoenix Field Division Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Before the United States House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies March 24, 2009.
Structures And Institutions Necessary To Support The Effective Operation Of A Firearms Tracing Mechanism, a paper presented to the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva, Switzerland, 2003, by Gary L. Thomas, Chief, Firearms Programs Division, ATF
Supreme Court of the United States, U.S. Department Of The Treasury, Bureau Of Alcohol, Tobacco And Firearms, Petitioner v. City Of Chicago, 2001
The Uses And Limitations Of ATF Tracing Data For Law Enforcement, Policymaking, And Criminological Research by Paul H. Blackman, Ph.D, 1998
U.S. Firearms Trafficking to Mexico: New Data and Insights Illuminate Key Trends and Challenges, Goodman and Marizco, University of San Diego, September, 2010
U.S. Foreign Policy Agenda, Volume 6, No. 2, 2001
UN Marking and Tracing Workshop, December 2007, Nairobi, Kenya, ATF Slide Presentation
When Must the Government Disclose Gun Owners’ Names and Addresses? David Kopel
2008 Appropriations Bill (Including Tiahrt Amendment)
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:
Provided further, That no funds appropriated herein shall be used to pay administrative expenses or the compensation of any officer or employee of the United States to implement an amendment or amendments to 27 CFR 178.118 or to change the definition of `Curios or relics’ in 27 CFR 178.11 or remove any item from ATF Publication 5300.11 as it existed on January 1, 1994:
Provided further, That none of the funds appropriated herein shall be available to investigate or act upon applications for relief from Federal firearms disabilities under 18 U.S.C. 925(c):
Provided further, That such funds shall be available to investigate and act upon applications filed by corporations for relief from Federal firearms disabilities under section 925(c) of title 18, United States Code:
Provided further, That no funds made available by this or any other Act may be used to transfer the functions, missions, or activities of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to other agencies or Departments in fiscal year 2008:
Provided further, That, beginning in fiscal year 2008 and thereafter, no funds appropriated under this or any other Act may be used to
disclose part or all of the contents of the Firearms Trace System database maintained by the National Trace Center of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives or any information required to be kept by licensees pursuant to section 923(g) of title 18, United States Code, or required to be reported pursuant to paragraphs (3) and (7) of such section 923(g),except to:
(1) a Federal, State, local, tribal, or foreign law enforcement agency, or a Federal, State, or local prosecutor, solely in connection with and for use in a criminal investigation or prosecution; or
(2) a Federal agency for a national security or intelligence purpose;


all such data shall be immune from legal process, shall not be subject to subpoena or other discovery, shall be inadmissible in evidence, and shall not be used, relied on, or disclosed in any manner, nor shall testimony or other evidence be permitted based on the data, in a civil action in any State (including the District of Columbia) or Federal court or in an administrative proceeding other than a proceeding commenced by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to enforce the provisions of chapter 44 of such title, or a review of such an action or proceeding; except that this proviso shall not be construed to prevent:

the disclosure of statistical information concerning total production, importation, and exportation by each licensed importer (as defined in section 921(a)(9) of such title) and licensed manufacturer (as defined in section 921(1)(10) of such title);

the sharing or exchange of such information among and between Federal, State, local, or foreign law enforcement agencies, Federal, State, or local prosecutors, and Federal national security, intelligence, or counterterrorism officials; or

the publication of annual statistical reports on products regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, including total production, importation, and exportation by each licensed importer (as so defined) and licensed manufacturer (as so defined), or statistical aggregate data regarding firearms traffickers and trafficking channels, or firearms misuse, felons, and trafficking investigations:

Provided further, That no funds made available by this or any other Act shall be expended to promulgate or implement any rule requiring a physical inventory of any business licensed under section 923 of title 18, United States Code:

Provided further, That no funds under this Act may be used to electronically retrieve information gathered pursuant to 18 U.S.C. 923(g)(4) by name or any personal identification code:

Provided further, That no funds authorized or made available under this or any other Act may be used to deny any application for a license under section 923 of title 18, United States Code, or renewal of such a license due to a lack of business activity, provided that the applicant is otherwise eligible to receive such a license, and is eligible to report business income or to claim an income tax deduction for business expenses under the Internal Revenue Code of 1986.

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  1. I guess I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it does seem to be a clear violation of the law, which the NRA should pursue via suit. OTOH, I recall spending at least part of the 1990's paranoidly (is that a word?) obsessing about "not being on any 'lists:'" Gun owner, conservative, libertarian, etc.

    After a while, though, I realized that the thing about "lists" is that if they get long enough, they cease to be of any value. There are lots of tinfoil-hat-wearers who are sure that the Gov is planning on rounding up and imprisoning gun owners in concentration camps, a la "Red Dawn", but in reality, putting ~35-40% of the population behind the wire would be pretty darn difficult to do. Compound this by the fact that the article seems to imply that the compilation of 4473's will only trace original sales: Once that gun is sold to another person, or the owner moves, or changes his/her name, or dies and the gun is sold at a probate auction, then the original "trace" is lost.

  2. Not only that, but there are a lot of potential data entry errors for each record submitted. Think about it: Let's say you have one entry for S&W Revolver SN AJS4512 and another entry for S&W revolver SN AJ54512. Is it the same gun? Did a lazy/sloppy/incompetent dealer mistake a "5" for an "S' in the original document? And if a subsequent buyer, through a legal dealer, puts the correct character in there (perhaps after a couple of private sales) then who's to say how many guns there are or whether AJS4512 or AJ54512 is the "real" number? Multiply this by hundreds of thousands of transactions per year and it would seem to me it would yield a database that is not particularly useful to anyone, paranoid fears notwithstanding.

  3. Final point, there are probably on the order of a hundred million or so* "off the books" guns out there now (guns that were sold before the 1968 record keeping requirements) that will not be "on the books" until and unless they are again transferred to or through a licensed dealer. Unless private sales are outlawed nationwide, these guns are not likely to go through dealers for decades.

    *Note: That figure is a Wild Ass Guess

  4. One of the primary problems with BATF is basic agency dishonesty. In the 2010 Congressional Budget Submission, ( ATF falsely claimed, "Over 90 percent of the crime guns used in Mexico originates from sources in the U.S.". This is simply not true, as confirmed by the Office of Inspector General in a report dated September, 2010 ( According to the OIG, less than 25% of guns seized in Mexico are submitted to ATF for tracing. Of the guns submitted, less than 30% are successfully traced. So, a more accurate figure for U.S. "crime guns used in Mexico" would be closer to 7% (30% of 25%). Most recently, (October, 2010) ATF Deputy Director Kenneth Melson said, "It doesn't matter if 20 percent are coming from the U.S. or 80 percent." We disagree. We think it does matter and that it’s never ok for ATF to misrepresent or lie to Congress or the American Public.

    Further, during FY 2007, 2008 and 2009, ATF conducted eTrace training sessions for over 961 Mexican police officers. As of October, 2010, Deputy Director Melson now claims only 20 Mexican policemen have been trained to use eTrace. Someone is not telling the truth.

  5. In the Inspector General Final Report released in November, 2010, the OIG reported that ATF admitted the 90% figure was "misleading" (otherwise known as a lie).

    "in September 2010, in response to a draft of this report ATF told the OIG that the 90-percent figure cited to Congress could be misleading because it applied only to the small portion of Mexican crime guns that are traced. ATF could not provide updated information on the percentage of traced Mexican crime guns that were sourced to (that is, found to be manufactured in or imported through) the United States.

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