How to Trace a Gun

Posted at: 01/29/2013 10:10 AM
Updated at: 01/29/2013 10:23 AM
By: The Associated Press

Even after a horrific mass shooting, and even in the computer age, it isn't easy for federal agents to trace the ownership of a pistol or rifle. Researchers who study gun violence bemoan the lack of data on ownership or details about guns used in shootings. But the void of reliable information about guns in America is exactly how Congress wants it. The Associated Press visits the ATF facility in West Virginia, where gun records are processed out of outdated, paper filing cabinets.

When police want to track down the history of a gun, there's no computer system to run to and instantly find out who bought it or where it came from. Even gun serial numbers aren't unique.

Instead, police send all the information they can find about the gun, including the manufacturer and model, to an office worker in a low-slung brick building just off the Appalachian Trial in rural West Virginia, about 90 miles northwest of Washington.

The search starts with an old-fashioned phone call to the manufacturer, who details which wholesaler the company dealt with. That may lead to a call to a second distributor before investigators finally dial the federally licensed gun dealer that first sold the weapon. Gun dealers are required to keep a copy of federal forms that detail who buys what gun and a log for guns sold and share that information with the ATF if a gun turns up at a crime scene and authorities want it traced. Oftentimes gun shops use fax machines to get a copy of that paperwork to the ATF.

That's where the paper trail ends.

In a perfect situation everyone is still in business, with their required paperwork in order and at the ready when the phone rings. But in about 30 percent of cases, one or all of those folks have gone out of business and ATF tracers are left to sort through potentially thousands of out-of-business records sent to the ATF and stored at the office building that more closely resembles a remote call center than a law enforcement operation.

The records aren't computerized. Instead, two shifts of contractors spend their days taking staples out of papers, sorting through thousands of pages and scanning or taking pictures of the records.

A 1968 overhaul of federal gun laws required licensed dealers to keep paper records of who buys what guns and gave ATF the authority to track the history of a gun if was used in a crime. But in the intervening decades, the National Rifle Association and other gun rights advocacy groups have successfully lobbied Congress to limit the government's ability to do much with what little information is collected, including keeping track on computers.

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