Finding out to whom a gun is registered is not as easy as you might think. Unless you live in one of the few states that require gun registration, most states don’t require that you register your guns. So, unless you work in law enforcement, finding out whether or not the Joneses next door have a gun may not be as easy as a quick online search.
Gun Registration Laws in the United States
If you’re wondering if you can see if your friend the next state over owns a gun, the answer is probably not. In fact, the federal government doesn’t have a national gun registration system and prohibits using the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NCIS) to create a national system or look up registered firearm owners.
Depending on the state where you reside, you may be required to register your guns, though only a small number of states require gun registration – and at varying levels. For example, Hawaii requires all firearms to be registered with the county police chief within five days after you acquired it. California, on the other hand, requires people who just moved to the state and those who own pre-ban assault weapons and 50 caliber rifles to register. Only the District of Columbia and six states (California, Connecticut, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York and Maryland) have some sort of gun registration requirements. Conversely, eight states (Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota and Vermont) have some type of legislation that prevents state-level gun registration.
Gun Owner Privacy vs. Public-Access State Databases
Even if you live in a state that requires that you register your gun, access to the registration database may be limited to protect gun owner’s privacy. Pro-privacy advocates cite personal privacy as a key reason to keep state-registered gun owner lists private. They argue that since registered gun owners purchase their guns legally, the public holds no interest in knowing they purchased firearms.
Gun privacy advocates also argue that public access to registered gun owner lists might facilitate crime by revealing to gun thieves the addresses where they can steal weapons. On the flip side, burglars might use registered gun owner lists to target homes lacking firearm protection. However, state officials argue the lists would reveal names but not addresses. Opponents also argue that gun owners do not have a right to the element of surprise – only to own the weapon.
Some gun owners and gun privacy advocates also fear employers and community members may discriminate against them based on their name appearing on a registered gun owner list, arguing that a public gun registration list has the negative stereotype similar to that of a registered sex-offender list.
How to Trace Who a Gun is Registered to
Depending on your state and county, you might be able to trace who a gun is registered to by contacting your public records office and filing a request. If your state or county does not honor such requests, you may be out of luck.
If you want to find out whether or not your gun has been previously involved in crimes, you can contact your local police department and ask them to run a check. Police officers can trace guns by accessing an ATF information system called eTrace. Again, if a gun wasn’t previously registered, it will not show up on the eTrace system.