How Do You Know if a Used Gun is Stolen?

Last Updated on February 9, 2024.
How Do You Know if a Used Gun is Stolen

Buying a used firearm does not always require going through a background check. Although your specific circumstances may vary depending on your city and state of residence, it is entirely possible to buy used guns that may have been reported as stolen in the past.

How can you check if a used gun is stolen? What happens if you find out your used gun was reported stolen? Find out the answers to these questions and what you should do if you find yourself in this situation.

How Can I Come Across A Potentially Stolen Gun?

The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) estimated that approximately 1.4 million firearms were stolen between 2005 and 2010, translating to a yearly rate of roughly 232,000 per year. Of these, around 3 out of 4 of these guns were stolen in a burglary.

If you’re exclusively purchasing your firearms at brick-and-mortar stores or through online retailers, the chances of it happening are essentially zero. All purchases through these outlets require passing a NICS background check.

Contrary to popular belief, even pawn shops have many procedures for stolen guns; they are regulated by law and work closely and frequently with law enforcement.

However, if you bought a used gun from a private party, federal law does not require you to pass any background checks.

Unless you live in a state where you must first go through an FFL to complete a private purchase (e.g., New York or California), it is entirely possible to purchase a stolen firearm.

How Can I Check If My Used Gun Is Stolen?

If you want to know how to check if a gun is stolen, there are multiple potential resources at your disposal. Learn about them and find out which ones are the best.

State-run serial number databases

Certain states, such as Florida or Georgia, allow private citizens to run the serial number of their firearm through a law enforcement database. For example, Florida residents may use the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s database.

These systems compare the serial number you entered with those in your state’s stolen firearms database, letting you know if it finds a matching number or not.

Although the information you get depends on the state database, a matching number typically comes with the firearm’s make and caliber alongside the matching serial number, as well as the location of the reporting police department. 

Note that even if you do get a matching number, these services do not 100% guarantee that your particular gun is stolen; it only informs you that the database contains a matching number. Keep in mind that multiple firearms may possess the same numbers, even within the same manufacturer.

Private serial number databases

In appearance, databases run by private individuals and organizations fulfill the same purposes as state-run databases, allowing you to enter a number and check whether it exists in their database.

Although these services are typically free, privately-run databases are not operated by law enforcement agencies, therefore presenting a higher risk that their data may be inaccurate or outdated. You should only use private databases for informational purposes and not rely on them as definite proof that a gun is stolen.

Contacting law enforcement

Law enforcement agencies are better qualified than civilians regarding how to check if a gun is stolen.

Call your local police department on their non-emergency number and ask them if you can bring a firearm to the station and have its serial number checked for you. Note that not every department may accept to run this service.

If your local department accepts, follow their instructions on how to bring the firearm safely. Do not show up at your local station with a gun in your hands!

Law enforcement agencies are one of few entities allowed to consult the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), the United States’ central crime tracing database. Of the 21 files maintained by the NCIC, one is devoted entirely to tracing lost and stolen firearms.

Note that if the NCIC returns a positive result and your department confirms that your firearm is lost or stolen, you will not get it back. They must report the lost or stolen gun to the ATF and return it to its rightful owner if possible.

​Tips And Tricks To Protect Yourself

If you are planning to purchase a firearm from a private individual, there are several steps you can take to protect yourself and avoid buying a gun that may have been stolen or used in a crime (colloquially referred to as “hot” guns):

  • Ask the seller for ID and a bill of sale. Knowing the identity of the gun’s previous owner and recording proof of the transaction serves as proof that the gun has changed hands legitimately. If the seller refuses or attempts to avoid the issue, you should walk away.
  • Do not accept guns with missing, scratched, or marred serial numbers because the firearm or the seller might have been involved in a crime.
  • Use the buddy system. Bringing a friend or a trusted person with you when visiting a person for a private sale can give you extra safety and peace of mind
  • Look up local safe exchange zones and ask the seller to meet you there. Safe exchange zones are areas under 24/7 surveillance by your local police department, designed to facilitate in-person exchanges in a safe manner, such as child custody exchanges or private transactions.
  • Ask the seller if you can inspect the firearm before buying it. If they refuse to show you the gun or let you touch it before paying for it, be suspicious. If they do accept, remember to be safe about it, especially when meeting in a public place.
  • Another great place to meet is at a local gun range, as it will give you a place to manipulate and even try out the firearm in a safe environment. If you want to try shooting it before you buy it, remember to be polite and ask the seller first. Always offer to pay for the ammo as a courtesy; they’ll appreciate it.

Safety Should Be Every Gun Owner’s First Priority

Tens of thousands of gun owners conduct private sales safely every day, and they are often an excellent way to buy rare, discontinued, or otherwise desirable guns.

However, you should always keep safety in mind. Trust your instincts, don’t put yourself in unnecessary danger, and always keep records of all your gun transactions, even private ones.

If you’re ever uncertain about your gun’s origin, don’t hesitate to call local law enforcement.