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Since the Gun Control Act of 1968 went into effect, American firearms manufacturers must include a serial number on every gun's frame or receiver for identification. This serial number can be used to search for the make, model and history of a gun, but the type of information the average person can get is limited. Here's the scoop on what info a gun's serial number can dish out.
Look for Identifying Marks
As of 2002, imported firearms must also bear a serial number. The serial number is just one required piece of information that must be engraved on a gun, and all firearms must bear the following engraved on the piece:
- Manufacturer's name
- Country of origin
- Model designation, if one is assigned
- Caliber or gauge of the gun
- Importer information, including the importer's city or state.
There are a few exceptions, like machine guns, but if your gun has a serial number and no other additional markings, it was probably manufactured before 2002.
When the Serial Number Is Your Only Clue
Whether your pre-2002 gun has only a serial number mark or you're sorting through a list of serial numbers for guns to be distributed, for example, in a will, there are ways to figure out the make and model.
Do a Google search. Enter the words "gun serial number" in the search bar, followed by the portion of the number before the first hyphen. This tells you the gun's maker. For example, with a gun serial number of 331-12345, just enter 331. The search "gun serial number 331" brings up results for the Ruger SR9, which is the gun's correct make and model. For serial numbers with multiple hyphens, you might need to include additional numbers between the first and second hyphen to get the most accurate results. For an serial number of 16-003-123-95, enter "gun serial number 16-003" to learn that the number is for an AyA shotgun.
Check the manufacturer's website. Once you've determined the model, go on the manufacturer's website to find which year the gun was made, from the digits following the dash. In this instance, 331-12345 was manufactured in the year 2007. In the case of the AyA number, the gun was manufactured in 1995, evidenced by the last two numbers, and "123" is its identifying number.
Check the NRA Museum for antiques. If Google doesn't give you satisfactory information, the NRA Museum online might provide leads through their serialization database. The 47-page PDF lists gun manufacturers and their serial numbers dating back to the 1890s.
Checking to See if a Gun Is Stolen
Buying a gun through a licensed gun shop will help ensure you're not buying a stolen weapon or one that was involved in a crime, but what if you're buying from a private individual?
- Check your state's gun laws. Not all states allow private individuals to sell firearms without going through a licensed firearms dealer. If the sale is illegal, chances are the gun is too.
- Check the serial number online through HotGunz, Stolen-Property or other stolen firearm sites. Not getting a hit doesn't mean the gun isn't stolen, however. The sites' information comes from citizens reporting their stolen guns. People who lose their guns' serial numbers won't be able to report them on the sites. Get a notarized bill of sale for any gun you purchase so you'll have some protection if the gun is later identified as stolen property.
- Enlist the help of law enforcement. Tracing a gun's serial number through the ATF to see if it was involved in a crime is only permissible for law enforcement agencies involved in a bona fide criminal investigation where a gun is recovered or suspected to be involved. However, some police stations will run checks through the National Crime Information Center to see if the gun is listed as stolen.
- Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms: Firearms Tracing Guide
- Pennsylvania Law: Are Firearms Without Serial Numbers Illegal?
- HotGunz Stolen Firearms Database
- US Department of Justice: ATF Guidebook
- Ruger: SR9 Pistol
- NRA Museum: Serialization
- Hotguns Stolen Firearms Database
- ATF: Fact Sheet - eTrace: Internet-Based Firearms Tracing and Analysis
- gun image by dinostock from Fotolia.com