When someone buys a gun, they have no way of knowing the history of that firearm unless they purchased it new. They can find background information by using the gun's serial number to conduct a search through law enforcement websites, third-party databases, or in some instances, speaking with a gun dealer or collector. A used gun with no serial number may be an antique. However, if it is more recently made, it could be an illegal firearm.
Identifying Information on Firearms
The Gun Control Act of 1968 required manufacturers to include a serial number on every weapon's frame for identification. There are exceptions, for example, imported machine guns made before 2002 may not have a serial number.
A serial number is just one way to identify a gun. It must also have other identifying information engraved on it, including:
- Name of the manufacturer.
- Country of origin.
- Gun's model designation, if applicable.
- Gauge or caliber of the firearm.
- Identifying importer information, including city or state.
Serial Number Identification
All guns made after 2002 have serial numbers. The manufacturer imprints a combination of digits on the body of the weapon. This number is stamped onto the metal portions of the handle, receiver, slide or trigger guard, making it less likely to wear off over time.
A person who purchased a gun from a licensed firearms dealer can ask them for help in locating the serial number. A gun dealer can run a serial number search, but may charge a small fee for doing so.
The documentation that came with the gun will also have this information. In many cases, this will come from the owner's manual. If the weapon doesn't have a serial number and isn't an antique, the owner should take the gun to law enforcement – it may be an illegal weapon connected to a crime.
Police Records and Third-Party Gun Databases
The average person has a few ways to search for a handgun's history online, but they may not find much. However, a gun owner can sometimes input the weapon's serial number into their local law enforcement website to find out some of the gun's history. Not every local law enforcement agency will have this service, so gun owners should check with their local agencies beforehand.
If there isn't a gun information search service in their area, third-party databases offer limited information on firearms. One such site, Hot Gunz, gets information through other owners who report to the site when they come across a stolen gun. These databases do not have an affiliation to law enforcement agencies and cannot replace what those offer, but they do sometimes provide used firearm owners with information. Their site operates much in the same way as a law enforcement site does – users plug a serial number into the search and wait to see if their weapon comes up.
Searching for Information on Vintage Guns
Antique guns may not have a serial number because they were manufactured before there was a legal requirement to have identification numbers. Depending on what information gun owners have, they can conduct their own search on antique guns in various ways. For example, if they have only the manufacturer's information, they can contact that manufacturer to learn its provenance.
They can also take the gun to an antique and collectible gun dealer. The dealer can research the history of the firearm and provide the make, model, approximate date of manufacture and other specifications. A gun dealer will likely charge a fee for this research.
How Law Enforcement Tracing Works
When law enforcement finds a firearm at a crime scene, it researches this evidence to develop leads in the investigation by tracing its history. This is a systematic process of tracking the movement of a gun from manufacturing into commerce, then into distribution via wholesalers and retailers; doing this will hopefully lead to the purchaser's identity, which can help link them or someone they have come into contact with, to the criminal investigation.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) traces thousands of guns annually for domestic and international law enforcement agencies. It also traces U.S. guns recovered in other countries for their law enforcement agencies. Its tracing can detect patterns in in-state, interstate and international gun trafficking. "Routine" tracing takes about seven to 10 days through the ATF. Databases like eTrace are one of the ways the agency traces guns sourced in the United States.
ATF Central Registry of Machine Guns
The National Firearms Act division of the ATF maintains a machine gun database, known as the National Firearms Registration and Transfer Record, for the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. The registry has the following information on registered machine guns:
- Serial number of the firearm.
- Address and name of the gun's importer, make or manufacturer if known.
- Model of the gun.
- Caliber, gauge and size of the weapon and other identifying marks.
- Gun's registration date.
- Identity and address of the person who has the gun in their possession. They must possess proof of the firearm's registration and make it available to the ATF upon request.
The Firearm Owners' Protection Act (FOPA) of 1986 requires manufacturers or anyone importing or transferring a machine gun to register it with the Treasury Department, which maintains a central registry of weapons not in the possession or under the control of the United States. It covers machine guns legally owned by private citizens or by local and state entities.
- ATF Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives: eTrace – Internet-Based Firearms Tracing and Analysis
- HotGunz Stolen Firearms Database: Home
- Gone OutDoors: How to Use a Serial Number to Search for the Make, Model & History of a Gun
- Gone Outdoors: How to Research a Gun's History
- ATF Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives: National Tracing Center
- Giffords Law Center: Machine Guns & 50 Caliber
- Because gun registration laws vary from state to state and the sale of firearms at fairs and other venues complicates the history, it might not be possible to find the complete history of your gun.
Michelle Nati is an associate editor and writer who has reported on legal, criminal and government news for PasadenaNow.com and Complex Media. She holds a B.A. in Communications and English from Niagara University.