NATION

ATF National Tracing Center traces guns the old-fashioned way

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From the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary to a shooting in the District, if the police want to know who that gun belongs to, they call one place: The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) National Tracing Center (NTC) in Martinsburg, W.Va.

Just last month, President Obama signed an executive order requiring federal law enforcement to trace every gun they seize, but how that’s done is like taking a step back in time.

If every gun tells a story, these folks are writing it.

“It’s slow and tedious,” said Special Agent Charlie Houser, ATF National Tracing Center director.

Special Agent Houser runs the ATF’s National Tracing Center. Last year, his team of about 400 traced more than 344,000 guns the old-fashioned way.

“Even law enforcement doesn’t realize we don’t have a big database with all the guns in it and all the purchasers’ names, but we don’t have anything like that,” he explained.

Federal law prohibits keeping a government database of gun owners. When law enforcement requests a trace, employees like Deena Jackson jump on the phone, calling the manufacturer and then the retailers until the owner is identified. Sometimes they're on the phone for five and a half hours out of an eight-hour day.

That’s a lot of phone calls, and it's harder if the gun dealer goes out of business. Those records are sent to the National Tracing Center. They receive more than one million records each month. Most are stored on micro-film or scanned, but they have to be searched by hand. There are 5,000 to 8,000 traces being worked on, on any given day

When wet records from Hurricane Katrina showed up years ago, employees laid them out individually and dried them in the parking lot. The guns would become untraceable if the employees gave up.

In November, police seized a gun off a suspected drug dealer. ATF traced the gun back to a woman in Manassas. Further investigation showed she had been illegally selling nearly three dozen weapons. She pleaded guilty in court. The trace linked the two cases together.

Despite a process that seems more Wright Brothers than Google, they can turn an urgent trace in 24 hours. The rest take about five days, but with the Obama Administration pushing for police to trace all seized guns, the work load is poised to skyrocket while their budget has been flat since 2004.

Linking suspects with firearms

The work at the ATF National Tracing center can be used to link a suspect to a firearm used in a crime, but also can identify sources of guns from organized crime or gangs, and can allow a police agency to chart the flow of firearm trafficking—basically it allows a police chief to get a sense for where the guns coming into a community are originating from. For example, the ATF has found half of the firearms recovered in New York come from other states.

Houser says, “what is the gun problem in his city? without tracing the gun it’s all conjecture.”

Additionally every day the ATF’s Washington Field Office reviews the trace results for our region for signs of gun trafficking or the sale of firearms to criminals.

Agents will look at the type of gun, where it was recovered and where it was purchased, if it was recovered from someone other than the known purchaser and “the time to crime”—the amount of time from when the gun was purchased to when it was recovered by law enforcement (less than 12 to 18 months often prompts further investigation). This process generates a couple hundred leads a year say agents.

It helps plug a bit of a hole in the law enforcement process. Local police investigations focus on tying a suspect to the weapon used in a crime, the ATF wants to look at how did the suspect get the gun—especially if that person had prior convictions that should have kept a firearm out of his hands. The tracing data makes it possible to more easily connect those dots.

Here's the President’s Executive order on tracing:

Executive Order: Tracing firearms  

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