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Ask the Expert: How Do You Know if a Gun Has No Criminal Past?

This week’s edition of “ask the expert” comes from a reader who asked, “How do I know if a gun is ‘clean,’ i.e., not stolen or being sought in an investigation because it may have been used in a crime, etc. if I buy it at a gun show or from a non-dealer?”

James Bardwell, in-house attorney for the National Association for Gun Rights, explains what people must do when making a private firearms transaction:

“Unfortunately, there is no way to do this in every circumstance. The FBI maintains a database called the National Crime Information Center (NCIC). This database is the repository for information on stolen property. It includes a list of stolen and lost firearms. Unfortunately, it is not available to the public.

“If you have a friend who is in law enforcement and is willing to check NCIC for a firearm for you, that is an option. Some agencies may be willing to do it for anyone who asks, so you’d have to check with your local agency. NCIC will either say there is a record on a firearm, or there is not. The absence of a record only means the firearm has not been reported to NCIC as lost or stolen. The firearm could still be lost or stolen, the loss or theft just has not been reported yet.

“State and local laws on second hand property vary widely. In some places, commercial buyers of secondhand property (like a pawn shop or gun shop) must make a report to local law enforcement of what items they have acquired over a certain time interval. Local law enforcement can then check their databases for whether or not any of that property has been reported stolen. In the case of guns, they would check NCIC. Such laws often go beyond guns, to tools, electronics, and so on. And local law enforcement may or may not actually make the check.

“In short, there is no way to check to see if a firearm has been reported stolen when you buy it from a private party. Even when you buy it from a dealer, depending on local law and the diligence of local law enforcement, you may still not be certain the firearm has not been reported stolen.

“There are online databases where people can list stolen guns, and you can check there. But the fact that a gun does not show up in such a list does not mean it isn’t stolen. The only list close to an authoritative one is NCIC. And NCIC is only available to law enforcement agencies.

“Finally, there is no crime in possessing a firearm that belongs to someone else, unless you know it is stolen. Once the status of the firearm is discovered, however, you will lose possession of the firearm. The person who sold it to you will owe you a refund, but that may be hard to collect.”

If you have an "ask the expert" question, send it to teresa@gunpowdermagazine.com.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Gunpowder Magazine.