One piece of information is often missing from coverage of shootings: Where the gun was sold. Journalists generally don’t write about where crime guns were sold because they don’t know — that information is rarely made public. Police departments either don’t have the information or don’t think it’s relevant enough to share. The federal government argues that sharing such data with the public is a violation of the law, The Trace reports. The information connecting a recovered gun to the store where it was sold comes from a “gun trace” in which the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives traces a firearm to its original purchase. A trace typically identifies the manufacturer that built the gun, the retailer who sold it, and the person who bought it. Police can use this information to spot gun stores with a pattern of supplying criminals.
Local law enforcement agencies don’t use trace data nearly as routinely as the ATF would like them to. Hundreds of police departments across California neglected to trace thousands of recovered firearms dating back to 2010. Some didn’t even know what a gun trace was. ATF data shows that a little more than 51 percent of all guns recovered by police in 2020 were sold more than three years before their recovery. On average, crime guns had a time-to-crime of seven years. In the early 2000s, then-U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt of Kansas proposed a rider to Congress’s annual appropriations act that would bar ATF from releasing trace data to the public. ATF argues that releasing trace data can interfere with ongoing criminal investigations, keying unsuspecting dealers to their presence on de facto law enforcement watch lists. Journalists have challenged Tiahrt in court with varied success. One suit, filed by Reveal at The Center for Investigative Reporting, led to a ruling that Tiahrt’s disclosure restrictions do not apply to aggregate trace data, like the total number of guns recovered by a specific store in a specific year.