Friday, August 5, 2011
Mission Impossible? ATF gun tracers loaded with responsibility, lack resources
No signs mark the outside of the hidden 1960s-vintage government facility in the bucolic countryside of West Virginia’s panhandle.
Even the parking lot is obscured by black tarps lining a cyclone fence.
But just inside the warehouse-like brick building in Martinsburg is the National Tracing Center, the epicenter of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives‘ effort to combat and control illegal gun use.
When police need to trace a captured gun — be it from Durango, Mexico, or Durango, Colo. — the request lands here, where 375 ATF employees and contractors handle more than 340,000 gun inquiries a year, foreign and domestic.
They search for the purchase trail of guns used in crimes, trying to give law enforcement investigative leads that might result in arrests. Average turnaround time is seven to 10 days, but an urgent request goes to the top of the pile and can be answered within 24 hours.
They labor under the watchful eyes of gun advocacy groups and members of Congress, who have written language into appropriations bills aimed at limiting the center’s ability to amass information about legal gun purchases nationwide.
Easier to check cars
“It’s easier to look up who owns a car than who owns a gun right now,” said Charles Houser, chief of the tracing center. “That’s because no one is worried about anyone taking their car away.”
The tracing center is akin to ATF’s central nervous system and has become a focal point of controversies like Operation Fast and Furious, in which Phoenix-based ATF agents were instructed to follow the trail of guns purchased for Mexican drug traffickers instead of interdicting them.
Approximately 600 of the weapons ended up in Mexico, and two of them were recovered in December 2010 in Southern Arizona where Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was found murdered. The genesis of Fast and Furious goes back to 2009 when tracing center analysts noticed a pattern of weapons seized in Mexico being purchased at several Phoenix-area gun stores.
The ATF’s Violent Crimes Analysis Branch, located at the same West Virginia facility, took tracing center data and determined that of 29,284 weapons recovered in Mexico and submitted for tracing in 2009 and 2010, 20,504 — or 70 percent — were “United States-sourced.”
Central America theory
Gun rights groups and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who along with Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., is leading a congressional probe of Fast and Furious, went ballistic over the report, claiming that most of the drug cartels’ weaponry is military personnel.
Houser, though, steadfastly dismisses the notion.
“If there was a huge percentage of guns recovered from El Salvador or Guatemala, trace results would show that,” he said.
But the restricted-access government installation — even in an age of instantaneous data retrieval — is no hyper-linked CIA operation.
When police at 2,800 law enforcement agencies nationwide and in 29 foreign countries submit queries to the web-based ATF eTrace system, the center’s computers do not spit out an instantaneous history of a gun’s trip from manufacturer to retailer to purchaser. Rather employees take the request and hit the phones or send emails, using the gun’s serial number and other identifying information to laboriously reconstruct the trail.
The ATF’s Firearms Technology Branch maintains the center’s “firearms reference library,” a euphemism for a vault containing thousands of captured weapons that ATF agents use for research.
If a federal firearms licensee, or FFL, goes out of business, workers must comb through scanned or microfilmed records that under federal law must be boxed up and sent to the center.
Every month, up to 1,000 boxes, containing 1.2 million or more recorded gun transactions, arrive by tractor trailer at the center’s loading dock or in the mail. Up until four years ago, the center put the documents on microfilm and now has a library of 44,000 microfilm rolls containing 444 million frames.
Now the center scans all incoming documents.
“I have to keep seven scanners going 16 hours a day or I fall behind,” Houser said.
After scanning, the paper is discarded. “If we didn’t destroy the original records, we’d be up to the ceiling“ with boxes,” Houser said.
He led a reporter and videographer of a tour of the tracing center’s cavernous warehouse interior, with stacked boxes flanking row upon row of cubicles where workers sit scanning, scrolling through documents and making phone calls.
Doing it by hand
One firearms licensee kept its handwritten records on onion skin paper, which could not be scanned. One employee was working her way through 288 boxes of records when the Chronicle visited, attaching each onion skin sheet to white paper for scanning.
“I’ve been doing it since Christmas,” she said with a laugh. How long will it take to finish? “Probably another five or six months.”
The technology exists to more fully automate gun tracing but language inserted by Congress in appropriations bills expressly forbids technical improvements that might turn data yielded from tracing into something approximating a national gun registry.
Gun-rights organizations want to keep it that way.
“It serves no criminal justice purpose for the government to have a registry of law-abiding citizens who own firearms,” said Andrew Arulanandam, spokesman for the National Rifle Association. “We want to make sure they go after bad guys and leave good guys alone.”
Not the Death Star
To the agency’s defenders, the constraints are emblematic of ATF’s lowly status in federal law enforcement. Agents enforce watered-down laws with meager resources, partly the result of gun lobbyists and lawmakers who see ATF as infringing Second Amendment rights, they say.
Houser acknowledged that improved computerized record keeping could help ATF do a better job of gun tracing. But he insisted the congressional limitations are fine with him.
In fact, Houser said he regularly turns away opportunities to improve the system’s connectivity. For instance, he’s made sure the scanned-in paper records are not readable by the center’s computers. So, there’s no way for tracing center employees to key in a name or a serial number and instantly hit on a gun purchase.
Employees must go through a firearms dealer’s entire file to pinpoint a transaction.
“It’s not George Orwell’s 1984,” Houser said. “This is just a bunch of people trying to do the best job they can. This isn’t the Death Star here.”
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