The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives traced more firearms in the past 12 months than in any year on record.  

The agency performed more than 400,000 gun traces from October of 2016 through the first three weeks of September 2017. That’s up from 364,000 the previous 12 months, and a dramatic increase from when the agency’s gun-tracing operation got off the ground in the early ’90s.

The ATF has set a new record for gun traces each year since 2014. The agency reports trace figures for fiscal years, not calendar years.

We called ATF spokeswoman Mary Markos to ask what was behind the surge. Markos declined to pinpoint a specific reason, but did note that the agency had ramped up outreach efforts to police departments around the country encouraging them to submit guns for tracing.

“We are doing more to promote firearms tracing,” she said. “More agencies have utilized the system and have found value in [it].”

Every police department in the United States has the option to submit a gun to the ATF for tracing. Historically, many departments have submitted them only in high-stakes cases. A successful gun trace provides information on where a firearm was manufactured, and who first imported or sold it. If the gun changed hands several times following its original sale, police are tasked with tracking the weapon through its various owners.

That extra legwork can disincentivize police departments from submitting guns in low-priority cases for tracing. They say that learning the provenance of the firearm isn’t not going to help them get a conviction, or that they just don’t have the time to do the research and paperwork.

But getting comprehensive trace information is still important for the ATF. A trace that might not help a local police department could still provide the federal agency with valuable information about how the illegal gun market functions, or perhaps shed light on a gun store connected to traffickers.

The ATF has made some efforts to encourage police departments to trace more of the guns it recovers, Markos said. The agency has performed direct outreach to police departments, explaining the value of trace data. And it has streamlined the process of submitting a trace request for thousands of agencies with its e-Trace program.