RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Law enforcement agencies in North Carolina are doing a better job of tracking down guns used in crimes and tracing them back to their owners than they are in most other states, new federal data show.

North Carolina ranks fourth nationally with law enforcement turning in more than 90,000 crime guns to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to be traced to their owners during the time period between 2017-21, data show.

(Source: ATF)

“The conclusion that I would draw is that law enforcement agencies in North Carolina are doing an exceptionally good job,” said Philip Cook, a professor emeritus at Duke University and an expert in gun violence.

The top three states — California, Texas and Florida — also rank 1-2-3 in population. North Carolina is No. 9.

“You’d think that there might be a rough correspondence, but there’s a lot of slippage between the volume of gun crime and the number of traces, because the law enforcement agencies have to be successful in recovering crime guns,” Cook said.

Most of those guns both came from and were recovered in Charlotte. Raleigh ranked No. 3 both as a source city and as the place where they were recovered.

The ATF last month published a massive set of data titled Crime Gun Intelligence and Analysis that agency director Steven Dettelbach says “provides more information on America’s crime guns than has ever been compiled in a single publication.

“Information is power,” he said.

The breakdown on law enforcement’s tracing efforts make up one component of it.

Those numbers are important in the first place because they represent a massive step forward in transparency.

“There is a need to know about whether this approach to regulating guns and supporting investigations of gun crimes is being widely used and being effectively used,” Cook said. “We, the taxpayers, are spending a lot of money to support (ATF). Here’s the report that tells us what they’re doing for us.”

The ATF report says law enforcement agencies across the country turned in nearly 2 million guns over that five-year period for tracing, with nearly 1.5 million of them being successfully traced to their owners.

On a yearly basis, that national rate climbed from 75 percent in 2017 to 79 percent last year.

North Carolina came in slightly above the national average with an 80 percent trace rate in 2021.

Tracing a gun might be a more complicated process than you would think, and there are several reasons why a trace might fail, Cook said. 

The law enforcement agency submits the description of the gun, including the serial number, to the national tracing center, which sorts through its administrative records to find the firearm’s first licensed dealer that sells the gun and go through the record of sale.

But there are numerous things that can go wrong during what can best be described as a time-intensive and resource-consuming process. The ATF says the median trace time in North Carolina during the scope of the study was 2.8 years.

Sometimes the dealer can’t produce the record of sale — or, sometimes the opposite is true, with the dealer producing a massive volume of records for a window of time, leaving it up to the agents to find the specific paperwork.

Sometimes the serial number predates 1968, when gunmakers assigned those numbers without any pattern. And of course, sometimes that number is filed off — or the gun was stolen or was traded without any record ever being kept.

“So that’s, as you can imagine, a complicated process that has some slippage in it,” Cook said. “And so there’s a number of possibilities that along those lines that are, I think, important in understanding why it’s not 100 percent.”