How to Find a Gun by Its Serial No.

by Teo Spengler

A gun can be located by its serial number.

a gun image by timur1970 from Fotolia.com

Firearms made in or imported into this country must have a unique serial number engraved into the metal. Using this serial number, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives can trace manufactured firearms for international, federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.

Serial Numbers

A serial number on a firearm is one of the markings required by the U.S. government. While there is no standard length or format for serial numbers, each must be unique so that no two are alike.

The gun serial number must be engraved or cast into the gunmetal of the firearm frame or receiver. It has to be in an easy-to-see, conspicuous location and imprinted sufficiently deeply that it is difficult to scratch off. Firearms made or imported after January 30, 2002, must have serial numbers engraved to a depth of at least .003 inch.

Other information allowing firearm tracking is also required. The name of the firearm's manufacturer, its country of origin, model, caliber, importer and city and state of the importer must also be engraved conspicuously on the gunmetal.

Firearms Tracing

Firearms are often used in the commission of crimes in this country. When the police or other law enforcement officials recover a firearm at the scene of a crime, they need to figure out who owns it and what it is doing there. Firearms tracing is the systematic tracking of the movement of a firearm recovered by law enforcement officials. Given the serial numbers and other information on a gun, it can be tracked from the manufacturer or importer through the store that sold it to the purchaser. "Comprehensive firearms tracing" is the term used to describe the procedure tracing every gun recovered within an area or jurisdiction.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives(ATF) runs the National Tracing Center. The ATF has the exclusive authority to trace firearms for law enforcement agencies. It assists U.S. and foreign law enforcement agencies by tracing gun ownership. These investigative leads help in the fight against violent crime.

Requests for Firearms Traces

If a police officer comes across a gun during the investigation of a crime, she can submit a firearms trace request to the National Tracing Center. These trace request forms are available on the internet or from the ATF National Tracing Center.

If you find a firearm and would like to find out who owns it using its serial number, you may have a hard time doing this unless you go to the police. There is no national registry of serial numbers, nor any public, online search database. The websites you find online that claim to perform this service for a fee may have some legitimate information, but their accuracy or effectiveness is not established.

If you suspect that a firearm you have come across was used to commit a crime or was stolen, your best bet is to take it in to a police station. Explain where you found the firearm and your suspicions about it. If the law enforcement personnel are convinced, they may run the serial number through the National Tracing Center to determine its ownership and history. They may or may not share this information with you.

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About the Author

Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Spengler splits her time between French Basque Country and California.