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Pattern Crimes

Firearms Trafficking Enforcement Techniques
Includes "The Birth of Firearms Tracing"
by Joeseph P. Greco

U.S. Dept. of Justice
Federal Bureau of Investigation
FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
September, 1998

In 1991, in a dispute with a schoolmate, a 12-year-old student from northern New Jersey fired three rounds from a .380 semi-automatic handgun in the schoolyard during recess. The shots missed their intended target but hit and injured three other students. Upon questioning, the 12-year-old revealed that 3 days previously he had purchased the firearm on the street for $300. [GunCite comment: Where does the average 12-year-old get $300 to buy a gun? Where were the parents?]

During the subsequent investigation, an agent from the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) asked the boy if, supplied with $300 dollars and given 30 minutes, he could leave the school and return with a handgun similar to the one in his possession. The boy appeared confused. After the agent repeated the request, the boy replied, "What do I do for the extra 15 minutes?" At that moment, the agent investigating the case realized the severity of firearms trafficking in the area.


Illegal firearms trafficking is the movement of firearms from the legal to illegal marketplace through an illicit method for an unlawful purpose, usually to obtain profit, power, or prestige or to supply firearms to criminals or juveniles. At some point, every illegally trafficked firearm originates from a federal firearms licensee.

Firearms traffickers must contend with a number of laws that attempt to thwart their illegal activities. For example, federal law prohibits individuals from purchasing handguns in a state where they do not reside. In addition, some states have more stringent laws governing the purchase of firearms than other states; therefore, firearm traffickers cannot always easily obtain handguns where they live. Thus, in interstate firearms trafficking cases, traffickers usually cannot purchase the firearm legally because they live in another state and cannot provide identification needed to establish residency and to complete the necessary ATF forms that document handgun purchases and information regarding the purchaser.

The presence, or lack of, state and local law determines whether a location serves as a source area or a market area in the illegal world of trafficking. A source area usually serves as a place where individuals obtain firearms, especially handguns, easier due to less stringent state or local firearm laws. By comparison, in a market area, firearms often are not readily accessible. As a result, illegally trafficked firearms remain a commodity, sought by those engaged in criminal activities. A symbiotic relationship between a market and source area exists based on the principles of supply and demand.

Firearms move from the legal to illegal marketplace in a number of ways (e.g., a theft, unlawful diversion by a corrupt licensee, and interstate and intrastate trafficking). Interstate firearms traffickers frequently use two methods to obtain firearms: falsification of the ATF Firearms Transaction Record at the time of the firearm purchase or the use of a straw purchaser, an individual who purchases a firearm and completes the required paperwork for the purpose of concealing the true identity of the intended receiver of the firearm.

When purchasing a firearm, each purchaser must complete the ATF Firearms Transaction Record, which provides the information licensees use to verify that an individual can legally buy a firearm and enables law enforcement officers to track firearm purchases. This record consists of three sections: a full description of the firearm purchased; a description of the purchaser, containing, at the very minimum, name, residence, and date of birth; and if the purchaser is prohibited from purchasing a firearm (e.g., a convicted felon, an illegal alien, an individual with a documented history of mental illness, a drug user, or an individual under a court-issued restraining order). The term "lying and buying" refers to falsification of this form in order to obtain firearms.

The straw purchase serves as another method often employed by an illegal firearms trafficker who cannot legally purchase firearms. Most traffickers use a series of straw purchasers directed to various firearms licensees. A common scenario entails the firearm trafficker accompanying the straw purchaser into the firearms store to pay for the purchase while the straw purchaser completes the paperwork. Store video surveillance can verify this type of purchase.

Some firearms traffickers obtain photo identification such as a driver's license in a state where they do not reside for the sole purpose of fraudulently proving residency to purchase firearms. This form of identification enables the trafficker to make several firearm purchases from multiple licensees over varying periods of time. This represents a pattern often seen with traffickers attempting to acquire large numbers of firearms while drawing as little attention to themselves as possible.

Deciding they can accomplish only so much through their own "lying and buying," many firearms traffickers resort to a combination of lying and buying and straw purchases to make their undertaking more profitable. This group approach is evident in northern New Jersey where one organized, structured, monolithic organization does not supply many of the urban areas. Rather, it is suspected that numerous groups operate independently or semi-independently of one another and are the source for many of the illegally trafficked firearms.


Law enforcement officers provide essential information on traffickers by tracing recovered firearms. Documents filed at the time of a firearm purchase provide beneficial information. The first comprehensive Gun Control Act in 1968 required documentation of the acquisition, possession, and disposition of all firearms. The law mandated that individuals selling firearms obtain licenses and keep records on all purchases. Various crime bills of 1984, 1988, and 1994 further defined, amended, and expanded the Gun Control Act.[1] The Gun Control Act and subsequent amendments document the interstate transportation of firearms. With few exceptions, the Gun Control Act leaves the bulk of gun control to state and local jurisdictions.

The success of a firearm trace depends heavily on the ATF Firearms Transaction Record. Federal law requires that the firearm purchaser complete and sign this form, which remains in the dealer's possession. If the dealer goes out of business, the law requires that these forms be forwarded to the ATF for storage. After an investigator recovers and traces a firearm, a dealer consults this record for information concerning the final disposition of the firearm.

In May 1975, Congress made the reporting of multiple sales of handguns a requirement, stating that the requirement would enable ATF to monitor and deter illegal interstate commerce in pistols and revolvers by unlicensed individuals.[2] If a person purchases two or more handguns within 5 or fewer business days the licensee must complete a ATF Multiple Sales or Other Disposition of Pistols and Revolvers from. Unlike the ATF Firearms Transaction Record, which remains with the dealer, the multiple sales form is forwarded to the ATF and the designated chief law enforcement official in the specific area. Multiple sales forms remain on file locally and at the ATF National Tracing Center. Thus, if a crime gun recovery traces back to a purchaser, law enforcement officers should check with the tracing center to see if the same individual purchased other firearms.

The Recovery

A firearms trafficking investigation begins with the recovery of the firearm. Firearms recovered pursuant to some type of suspected or actual criminal activity include those discovered by uniformed officers on patrol, uncovered by investigators during the course of an inquiry, brought during undercover buys, and recovered during the execution of various warrants. Other times, officers find abandoned firearms with no known owner or possessor.

Similar to a homicide investigation where identifying the body becomes the first order of business, identifying the firearm comes first in a firearm trafficking investigation. Complete identification of the firearm requires three pieces of information -- the recovery or incident report detailing the recovery, the trace request, and the trace results. This information can determine the types of firearms used, by which individuals, and for what criminal activity, as well as the source of the firearm.

Investigative experience in the Newark, New Jersey, area shows that having a firearms coordinator at the state or local department level provides an effective method of tracing a recovered firearm. The coordinator has responsibility for receiving all recovery information and forwarding the information within a 24-hour period to the nearest ATF field office for tracing. Upon completion of the trace, the firearms coordinator receives the information. Also, Approximately once a month, the local coordinator receives a printout of the month's previous recoveries and their trace results.

To obtain a clearer picture of firearm trafficking after receiving initial trace results, investigators should locate any possible multiple purchases of firearms and possible suspect guns. Suspect guns, firearms purchased by a suspected trafficker but not yet recovered, usually are trafficked illegally. Recovery of the firearm confirms this suspicion. Investigators should maintain a separate file for each recovery, including the recovery report, trace request, trace results, multiple firearms purchase information, suspect gun information, as well as identification and background information for all individuals involved.

The file should begin with the description of the recovered firearm. This initial part of the investigation focuses on the firearm, not the person. Firearm recoveries represent important pieces of the investigative puzzle. The study or analysis of these recoveries, or pieces, identifies the trafficker's pattern. A trafficking investigation begins with the recovery of the firearm; therefore, the investigator must back-track from the recovered firearm, via tracing, to identify a suspect. Each recovered firearm should be viewed as a potential confidential informant.

Pattern Analysis

Like most people, firearms traffickers are creatures of habit, and they often establish specific patterns in their activities. They might prefer a certain type of straw purchaser, a specific source location or licensee, or a favorite method of distribution. They change their pattern of activity only when forced or when they no longer feel comfortable. Firearms trafficking becomes vulnerable to certain law enforcement techniques when an analysis of the recoveries identifies patterns.

When receiving trace results and multiple sales and suspect gun information, investigators should examine several factors. First, they should attempt to identify the individuals involved in acquiring the firearms. SEcond, they should consider the types of firearms purchased. For example, are the firearms inexpensive, semiautomatic handguns? Finally, investigators should note the number of firearms purchased and the frequency of the purchases.[3]

Analysis of the information begins with a review of the incident report and trace results. After a period of review, a profile emerges of the most frequently recovered firearms in an area. For instance, in many urban inner cities, a preference for inexpensive, easily concealed, high-powered, semiautomatic pistols in .380, 9mm, and .25 calibers emerges. Activities frequently associated with these weapons include drug- or gang-related crimes. Depending on the type of firearm recovered, profiles of criminal groups can emerge.

A study of firearm recoveries in Newark, New Jersey, area under Project LISA[4] indicated that the less expensive and sophisticated the firearm used by the criminal group, the less organized, affluent, and sophisticated the group. Some street gangs and the corner drug dealer represent examples of this type of group, which remain vulnerable to better-armed groups. As the criminal group moves farther up the economic ladder, so does the type of weaponry involved. Large-scale interstate and international criminal organizations prefer the more high-powered, expensive handguns. Those groups wishing a statement to society and their criminal competition prefer to use such firearms as machine guns. The more expensive and sophisticated the firearm, the better-structured, -organized, and -insulated the group associated with that firearm. The more sophisticated the firearm, the easier to determine the trafficking pattern because these firearms are more specific and used by fewer criminals.[5]

Although trafficking groups have little involvement with the individuals arrested in possession of trafficked firearms, these groups require points of acquisition and distribution for the firearm. In the Newark, New Jersey, area, crime gun analysis indicates that these groups normally distribute in the same ares or neighborhoods. To establish trafficking patterns, investigators should document individuals arrested with recovered firearms and the locations where they were arrested.[6]

The types and number of firearms purchased, the method of purchase (e.g., lying and buying or straw purchase), individuals involved in the purchases and recoveries, and the source areas or states where the purchases took place provide essential information revealing trafficking patterns. The number of recoveries determines the chances of a successful investigation. The more recoveries, the more information and, in turn, the clearer and more accurate the pattern. Accuracy provides the best chance for securing evidence.

Patterns provide focus to the investigation. Inquiries now can begin at each end of the patter--in the recovery area and in the source area. Other sources of information, especially confidential informants, may verify emerging patters. In turn, patterns can corroborate information provided by informants.

Deviations from pattern crimes reinforce the pattern because they make pattern activity stand out more and these deviations might spin off into other patterns of criminal activity. For example, if firearms recovered in a particular place were purchased by young, single mothers living on public assistance in a high-crime, source area, a pattern emerges after a number of traced recoveries. Further trace results indicating that middle-aged males purchased the same type of firearms from the same source areas validate the first pattern and also provide the investigator with another emerging pattern. The investigation relies on identifying pattern activity, and these identification techniques must remain flexible, focused, and disciplined.

In order to handle the influx of firearms information, investigators should establish a central location or clearinghouse consisting of one or several individuals who organize and systematize firearms recovery data. These individuals enter, file, and track trace requests and incident reports upon receipt.

Firearm Serial Numbers

Firearm serial numbers enable law enforcement officers to trace firearms to purchasers. Considered a firearm's fingerprint, the series of numbers imprinted on the frame identifies the firearm as an individual weapon, the same way fingerprints identify a person. Firearms with obliterated serial numbers depict an increasing problem. Traffickers usually obliterate serail numbers to disguise or sever any connection of firearms to their source.

Investigators should make an extra effort to identify firearms with obliterated serial numbers. If the serial number cannot be restored, they should attempt to determine the firearm's origin and trafficking patterns using information acquired from its recovery and from the suspect arrested in possession of the firearm.

Serial Number Restoration

As a matter of course, investigators should forward all firearms recovered with obliterated serail numbers to a state or local forensic laboratory for serail number restoration. If the laboratory has the Integrated Ballistics Identification System (IBIS), test-firing the firearm and then entering the rounds into the IBIS will assist in comparing the rounds and also expand the IBIS database. The laboratory also should attempt to ascertain the method of obliteration. Were the numbers filed, gouged, or drilled from the weapon? Traffickers usually employ the same technique for removal, and the method of obliteration becomes noteworthy in establishing a pattern. If the number is restored, the investigator should trace the firearm. A restored serial number helps strengthen a trafficking investigation, especially if it involves a suspect gun.

Unrestored Serial Numbers

If the serial number cannot be restored, the firearm still can provide important information. For identification purposes, the investigator should assign the firearm a specific number and open a file with this number for that particular firearm. Each file should contain the following information, if available:

By including this information in each file and examining these files when tracing firearms with unrestored serail numbers, investigators can denote any similarities that might lead to a recovery.


Because illegal firearms trafficking requires more than one individual, it often takes a group effort to combat it. A task force effectively accomplishes this group effort. The primary advantages of the task force concept, in addition to the obvious pooling of funds, resources, and personnel, are the centralization of information or intelligence and the combining of different area of expertise.

Centralization of intelligence remains an important aspect when investigating illegal firearm trafficking. To operate on recovery intelligence, the task force must collect, organize, systematize, analyze, and profile that intelligence at one location. This requires individuals from various jurisdictions constantly communicating with one another. Instead of spreading intelligence over various local, state and federal agencies or jurisdictions, the task force can maintain a central location for all recovery information, making it readily accessible.

Recovery information originates on the street and must return to the investigator on the street as an investigative tool. This has four objectives: it supplies statistical data identifying the trafficking problem; it supplies information for analytical purposes; it provides leads for investigations; and finally, its use enables the task force to become operational.

Task forces allow federal, state, and local law enforcement to conduct investigations while working from the same location.[8] Better liaison among the various agencies and more effective communication result, reducing duplication and friction among the agencies.

The centralization of intelligence remains essential in any task force operation involving firearms trafficking. This knowledge ranges from firearm-related criminal activities (e.g., drug dealing, homicide, robbery, etc.) to the psychology of individual and criminal group behavior. Personnel assigned to the task force might consist of National Guard members, federal agents, state and local law enforcement officers, and consultants.[9] The task force needs a flexible structure to conduct long-term, complex investigations of a multi-faceted problem--illegal firearms trafficking.


FIrearms trafficking investigations constitute more than paper cases. In addition to documenting a paper trail, investigators must perform intelligent, attentive, and disciplined analyses of trafficking patterns, interview individuals associated with recoveries, and cultivate informants and undercover contacts. In short, investigators should use every available resource when investigating firearms trafficking organizations.

Several vulnerabilities are inherent in firearms trafficking. A criminal organization provides greater opportunity for law enforcement officers to cultivate informants. Another vulnerability stems from the repetitive acts, which lead to evidence of identifiable patterns.

Illegal firearms trafficking organizations must be investigated and prosecuted as a group. Investigating and arresting individuals often only causes a mere inconvenience to the trafficking organization. After disrupting and dismantling the group as a whole, organization members and firearms are not replaced easily. A task force approach can effectively combat firearms trafficking groups.

The investigation and tracing of illegally trafficked firearms recovered in criminal activities have resulted in the development of these successful proactive techniques. Law enforcement can accomplish much using these methods to deter illegal firearms traffickers. Successfully tracing recovered firearms and disrupting firearms trafficking organizations decrease the chances of firearms falling into the wrong hands, including those of 12-year-old students.


1. The National Firearms Act of 1934 identified a select group of firearms favored by the criminal element. Thirty-four years later, the Gun Control Act of 1968, put restrictions on other firearms, especially handguns. The GCA of 1968 resulted directly from two high-profile criminal acts that year--the assassinations of Sen. Robert Kennedy and Rev. martin Luther King. Jr. The National Firearms Act of 1934 was adopted almost in total as Title II of the GCA. Later, crime bills in 1984, 1988, and 1994 increased penalties for existing violations, created new laws against the use of firearms in violent and drug trafficking crimes, mandated licensing and record-keeping requirements for individuals engaged in the business of dealing in firearms (federal firearms licensees), and defined new classes of firearms such as assault weapons.

2. 27 Code of Federal Regulations, Section 178, 126A.

3. The uses of a time line to document the recoveries, purchases, and individuals involved in a trafficking investigation serves as an effective investigative technique. The time line shows all dates of recoveries and purchases and brings clarity, continuity, and focus to the information.

4. Project LISA focused on Locating firearms, Identifying traffickers, Seizing contraband, and Aprehending violators.

5. Under Project LISA, BATF agents traced approximately 11,000 firearms between 1993 and 1996.

6. A study released by Northeastern University, in boston, Massachusetts, concluded that criminals residing in cities with a high availability of firearms receive a greater demand for firearms for self-protection than those criminals living in low availability cities who do not feel the need to have firearms for self-protection.

7. The IBIS computer system scans ammunition from a recovered firearm and then compares it to a database that contains information on ammunition from other recovered firearms.

8. In addition to deputizing and swearing state and local officers as deputy U.S. marshals with federal authority, agents receive the benefit of working investigations in state and local jurisdictions, a necessity in perfecting federal cases. For example, firearms trafficking is not a predicate crime under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO); thus, a group or organization trafficking in firearms would not fall under the RICO statutes (18 U.S.C 1961-1968). However, when that group uses firearms for other criminal acts, these probably would be predicate criminal acts under the RICO statutes.

A major problem in conducting RICO investigations is not so much proving the predicate crime but establishing the group organizational structure. Groups dealing in firearms and other criminal activities do not appear as rigidly organized and structured as a traditional organized crime family or outlaw motorcycle gang. These groups appear to constantly combine, disband, and recombine, not necessarily with the same individuals, which causes difficulty in determining group structure and personnel.

9. Civilian experts found at local universities and colleges in fields such as psychology, sociology, and linguistics represent an underused source. The profiling of the firearm deserves further research and investigation to understand why traffickers and other criminal groups prefer particular types of firearms and use certain firearms in specific activities. Experience has shown the importance of profiling the firearm first, then the individual or group associated with the firearm. An investigator can build and analyze the profile of a firearm from its documentation.

The Birth of Firearms Tracing

On January 16, 1920, the 18th Amendment became the law of the land. Thus, alcohol, a product that had substantial influence on American social life for hundreds of years, became illegal. Congress attempted to prohibit the product and its demand but accomplished neither. In fact, an enormously profitable illegal market emerged instead. As in any society, some individuals rush to take advantage of demand in a lucrative market. Further, when a market is profitable and illegal, it becomes highly competitive and violent. Competitiveness and violence require more innovative ways of protecting individuals and their newly acquired wealth, particularly in the field of armaments.

In 1921, a patent was granted to retired U.S. Army general John Thompson, who designed a concealable, lightweight, fully automatic firearm that one individual could operate. This firearm appeared on the street just as competition for the illegal alcohol market became fierce and violent. General Thompson's submachine gun initiated a category of firearms that became known as "gangster weapons."

On December 5, 1933, the 18th Amendment was repealed. The American public soon forgot prohibition, but the gangster weapons remained. Due to the backlash from the American public regarding these weapons, particularly in urban areas, Congress decided to exercise some degree of control over these firearms.

In 1934, Congress passed the National Firearms Registration and Transfer Act, requiring individuals to register all gangster weapons and pay taxes on the weapons to the U.S. Department of Treasury. As defined by the act, "gangster weapons" also included shotguns shortened to a specified length at the barrel and stock for easy concealment, silencers, and various destructive devices, especially grenades known as "pineapples." The Thompson, however, remained the primary target of the backlash, perhaps due to its lethal-looking, dramatic appearance, which after a substantial amount of publicity both in the newspapers and the movies, made it possibly the most recognized firearm in the world. The National Firearms Registration and Transfer Act imposed documentation requirements to lawfully possess, acquire, dispose of, or manufacture these types of weapons. This probably represent the first attempt in history by the U.S. government to trace firearms.

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