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Tracing Guns Used in Violent Crimes: It's Not CSI

There is no national database of gun owners, gun sellers or guns in existence. In fact, federal law prohibits the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (AFT) from keeping track of guns generally. A gun can only be tracked after it is used to commit a crime.

And the tracking process bears little resemblance to the kind of high-tech searching conducted on television. Here what really happens:

1. Local police send all the information they have about the gun, including the manufacturer and the model, to an AFT office in West Virginia.

2. The AFT calls the manufacturer to learn the name of the wholesaler used by the manufacturer to find out who first sold the gun.

3. The gun shop faxes a copy of the paperwork it saved (in theory) regarding the sale of the weapon.

This can take several days; in the meantime, the gun could have been used to commit another crime, been thrown in the trash or resold on the black market. And, even if everything works as it's supposed to, in 30 percent of cases the gun dealer has gone out of business, leaving AFT officials to sort through massive piles of paper from closed gun shops.

Even after the records have been digitized, finding the right gun shop and gun is time-consuming because of significant limitations in how the digitized images can be searched. To find a specific weapon used in a violent crime, an ATF employee must simply scroll through the microfilm or digitized records one by one. And these records are only for out-of-business shops. Otherwise, the ATF must determine who first sold the gun and contact that dealer directly.

The law restricts the federal government from creating a searchable database of gun sales. As a result, a search that takes 15 seconds on TV actually takes about five days, on average.

It also prohibits law enforcement from trying to track the movement of weapons regionally. For example, if New York City police want to know if guns are coming into the city from New Jersey, specific information about a particular gun shop is not available from the ATF.

Despite the problems, the ATF reports that it traced around 344,000 guns for 6,000 law enforcement agencies last year.

Source: Huffington Post, "Gun Crime: Tracing Weapons Back To Owners Isn't Easy: Fed," by Alicia A. Caldwell, Jan. 29, 2013.

There is no national database of gun owners, gun sellers or guns in existence. In fact, federal law prohibits the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (AFT) from keeping track of guns generally. A gun can only be tracked after it is used to commit a crime.

And the tracking process bears little resemblance to the kind of high-tech searching conducted on television. Here what really happens:

1. Local police send all the information they have about the gun, including the manufacturer and the model, to an AFT office in West Virginia.

2. The AFT calls the manufacturer to learn the name of the wholesaler used by the manufacturer to find out who first sold the gun.

3. The gun shop faxes a copy of the paperwork it saved (in theory) regarding the sale of the weapon.

This can take several days; in the meantime, the gun could have been used to commit another crime, been thrown in the trash or resold on the black market. And, even if everything works as it's supposed to, in 30 percent of cases the gun dealer has gone out of business, leaving AFT officials to sort through massive piles of paper from closed gun shops.

Even after the records have been digitized, finding the right gun shop and gun is time-consuming because of significant limitations in how the digitized images can be searched. To find a specific weapon used in a violent crime, an ATF employee must simply scroll through the microfilm or digitized records one by one. And these records are only for out-of-business shops. Otherwise, the ATF must determine who first sold the gun and contact that dealer directly.

The law restricts the federal government from creating a searchable database of gun sales. As a result, a search that takes 15 seconds on TV actually takes about five days, on average.

It also prohibits law enforcement from trying to track the movement of weapons regionally. For example, if New York City police want to know if guns are coming into the city from New Jersey, specific information about a particular gun shop is not available from the ATF.

Despite the problems, the ATF reports that it traced around 344,000 guns for 6,000 law enforcement agencies last year.

Source: Huffington Post, "Gun Crime: Tracing Weapons Back To Owners Isn't Easy: Fed," by Alicia A. Caldwell, Jan. 29, 2013.

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