TLDR: Yes, but only under the right conditions.
Friend of this blog Ralph S. wrote me recently with this excellent question:
Sometimes in reading crime fiction, I notice that writers frequently depend on a system of firearms registration to help the detective find out who owns a particular gun, or maybe to track the ownership of a firearm. But does such a system of registration actually exist in the USA? My guess is that some such systems may exist, but that they are geographically spotty, and that some writers may be making false assumptions. How should writers handle this problem?
Because of how laws are not standardized from coast to coast in the United States, I’d need more information about the firearm, the circumstances, the laws that apply to that area and more to know exactly whether any given scenario is possible. However, there are some general takeaways for writers to keep in mind.
There is No Single, Comprehensive Database of Firearm Ownership in the United States
There doesn’t exist a single database anywhere in the U.S. that acts as a clearing house for all gun owner information. Federal, state and local governments may maintain databases based on background checks, registration paperwork and other mandated requirements, but they are far from exhaustive, and the different branches of government often don’t share information with each other.
NICS: Close to, but Not Quite, a Comprehensive Database
So where are fiction writers getting these ideas about gun databases? I have a hunch.
The closest thing to a comprehensive database of gun ownership information is the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). When people talk about running a “background check” to determine eligibility for a firearm purchase, this is the system that executes that check. Whenever someone seeks to buy a firearm from a gun dealer anywhere in the United States, a NICS background check is initiated.
However, there are a few problems with the NICS for Ralph’s detective.
First, while the NICS is supposed to contain accurate and complete information about a person’s criminal history, it’s still prone to errors and data gaps. This could be due to privacy laws (mental health records, for example), federal or state entities not sharing information or basic human error.
Second, a NICS check is only initiated for sales that involve a federal firearm license (FFL) holder. The FFL holder, usually but not always a gun dealer engaged in the business of selling or transferring firearms, is the one that initiates the NICS check. However, NICS checks are not required for private sales of firearms (with some exceptions). Therefore, those transactions aren’t recorded anywhere, much less a database.
Third, a NICS check only determines the eligibility of a person to own a firearm. That’s it. The firearms themselves are not noted, as this disclaimer from the FBI itself points out (emphasis mine):
Based on the varying state laws and purchases scenarios, a one-to-one correlation cannot be made between a firearm background check and the firearm sale.
What NICS Means to Writing Fiction
That there is a system administering background checks does not mean there is also a database of gun owners for fictional detectives to use to match firearms to characters.
But if you’ve read this blog long enough, you know that nothing in the world of firearms comes without exceptions.
An Exception: NFA Firearms
However, some firearms and their owners are registered in a federal database that could absolutely be used to match a gun to a person. This only applies for a special group of firearms known as “NFA guns” or “Class III guns.” These are regulated under the National Firearms Act (NFA), which requires federal registration and a pile of paperwork.
These are the firearms and accessories that fall under the NFA:
- a shotgun having a barrel or barrels of less than 18 inches in length
- a weapon made from a shotgun if such weapon as modified has an overall length of less than 26 inches or a barrel or barrels of less than 18 inches in length (aka a “sawed off” shotgun)
- a rifle having a barrel or barrels of less than 16 inches in length
- a weapon made from a rifle if such weapon as modified has an overall length of less than 26 inches or a barrel or barrels of less than 16 inches in length
- a fully automatic firearm, meaning a machine gun, submachine gun or any firearm capable of firing more than one shot per pull of the trigger (note that fully automatic firearms made after 1986 are not legal for civilian possession)
- a “destructive device”
If the story involves any of the above, it is possible to match that specific firearm to a character.
An Exception: ATF Traces
The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (commonly known as the ATF) can perform firearm “traces” on behalf of another law enforcement agency or as part of its own investigations. From the ATF:
Firearms tracing is the systematic tracking of the movement of firearms recovered by law enforcement officials from its first sale by the manufacturer or importer through the distribution chain (wholesaler/retailer) to the first retail purchaser. Comprehensive firearms tracing is the routine tracing of every crime gun recovered within a geographic area or specific law enforcement jurisdiction.
This tracing information is collected into a centralized database that could be called up by the fictional detective in question.
eTrace is a paperless firearm trace submission system that is readily accessible through the internet that provides the necessary utilities for submitting, retrieving, storing, and querying all firearms trace related information relative to the requestor’s agency.
There’s a lot more to tracing than just that, so click here to download a full guide from the ATF if you’re interested. For an example of how this works in the real world, research Operation Fast and Furious and the ATF gunwalking scandal, in which federal law enforcement traced firearms to criminal organizations but didn’t take action. The firearms were later used to kill a U.S. Border Patrol officer.
For fiction, using a trace comes with conditions.
First, as I understand them (correct me in the comments if I’m wrong), traces are only effective for retail purchases. Private gun sales (from person to person) fly below the radar. For example, the ATF might trace a pistol from its initial purchase at a sporting goods store, but lose track of it once that pistol is re-sold in a private sale to an individual.
Second, that ATF database only covers firearms specifically identified for tracing and/or capable of being traced. It is not a comprehensive catalog of all firearms.
Third, if the serial numbers are recorded ahead of time by the gun owner, tracing is useful for looking up stolen firearms. If a gun is stolen, and the owner reports the serial number to law enforcement, that serial number could be flagged by the ATF. This is useful for pawn shops, for example, to determine whether a gun they’re considering buying is stolen.
If this still isn’t clear, here’s an example of how this works. Let’s say a Glock pistol is found at a murder scene. Maynard Soloman, a detective, wants to figure out who owned the pistol. Maynard records the serial number (12345) on the pistol and requests a firearm trace from the ATF.
The ATF contacts Glock and says, “What history do you have for this pistol with serial number 12345?”
Glock says, “Pistol 12345 was sent to Biff’s Sporting Goods for retail sale. That’s the last we touched it.”
The ATF calls up Biff’s Sporting Goods and says, “What history do you have for this pistol with serial number 12345?”
Biff’s Sporting Goods says, “That pistol sold on May 9, 2016. Let me look at my record of NICS background checks that day.”
Then, based on the NICS history, the ATF contacts Maynard with some names to check out. Maynard determines the original purchaser was Alice. Does that mean that Alice used the Glock at the scene of the crime? Maybe, maybe not. Alice, as it turns out, sold the Glock to her cousin. The cousin’s house was broken into last week, and now the Glock is missing. The trail is cold.
Because traces can only go so far, it’ll take some planning to use them effectively in fiction, but it’s well within the realm of possibility.
An Exception: State Firearm Databases
State governments, on the other hand, approach gun registration differently from the feds. They’re free to develop their own methods of data collection based on state eligibility requirements, the types of firearms and myriad other factors. Or they might not bother with any of that.
This is where you’ll have to research the laws of the setting, because it gets nuanced in a hurry.
For example, in Minnesota a person must obtain a state permit before purchasing a handgun from a gun dealer. The permit has nothing to say about the handgun the person eventually buys. It only pertains to eligibility to make the purchase.
Texas, on the other hand, doesn’t require a permit to purchase a handgun at all.
That’s different from California, where not only is a permit to buy a handgun required, but the transaction itself is also recorded:
If you purchased a handgun from a properly licensed California firearms dealer and underwent a background check via the state’s Dealer’s Record of Sale (DROS) process, a record of your handgun purchase is already on file with the Department.
Therefore, for writing fiction, matching a firearm to a character is easier in California than it is in Texas or Minnesota.
The Gun is in a Database: Now What?
Let’s say you determine the firearm in your story is in a database. What variables come into play then?
You could play it straightforward and point the detective to the registered owner. There’s nothing wrong with that, but keep in mind that firearms don’t check in with databases before they take off. Guns are inanimate objects. Is the owner truly the one who last used it? Or could it be someone else?
Also, the primary identifying feature of a firearm is the serial number stamped onto the frame or receiver (a piece that contains the moving parts of a gun). Could the serial number have been altered?
The Full Gun Registration Scenario
Let’s say all of this gun talk makes your head spin, and you decide that every gun in your fictional world is fully registered in a single, comprehensive database. That ought to solve it, right?
Even if tomorrow every gun in the U.S. was registered into a single database, it’d still be challenging to know who actually pulled the trigger, and law enforcement would run into legal and practical obstacles. This is analogous to speed cameras issuing tickets based on the license plate data. Just because a car was caught on camera speeding doesn’t mean the person registered as the owner of the car was the one actually speeding. It’d be the same with firearms.
That doesn’t mean you can’t go with the full gun registration scenario in your fictional setting. This is just something to consider.
Alternatives to Gun Databases
Rather than using a database to match a gun to a character, get creative in other areas.
Gun owners often record serial numbers on their firearms as a means to reclaim them should they be stolen. If those serial numbers were handed over to an insurance company as part of a policy, the company might offer some assistance.
What about witnesses? Gun shots are loud. Maybe there’s an angle to play there.
- There isn’t a single, comprehensive database of guns and gun owners.
- NFA firearm databases can match guns to people.
- State databases may provide some help, but do your research first.
- ATF traces can only go so far.
Could a detective match a gun to character using a government database? It’s possible, but only under the right conditions.
Get the Book
The Writer’s Guide to Weapons: A Practical Reference for Using Firearms and Knives in Fiction (Writer’s Digest Books) comes with everything but the ammo. Pick up a print or digital copy from these fine retailers: