Chicago Violence

How Crime Guns Are Traced in the US: One Page at a Time

NBC Universal, Inc.

The process of tracing every single firearm used in a crime in the U.S. goes through a facility in West Virginia that houses millions of paper records of gun sales – so many that shipping containers were brought in for storage over concerns the floor might collapse – that staff page through one at a time as they trace thousands of guns each day, all while prohibited from creating any kind of searchable database of the information within those records.

The facility is the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ National Tracing Center, located in Martinsburg, West Virginia, a city of about 17,000 people in the Shenandoah Valley.

The center is the only crime gun tracing facility in the country, according to the ATF, which means every investigation into a weapon recovered from a crime scene in the U.S., including every eruption of gunfire in Chicago, passes through that building.

The facility is on track to receive more than 540,000 firearms trace requests from law enforcement agencies this fiscal year alone – a record high for a labor intensive process that’s constrained by federal laws passed under pressure from the gun lobby that limit the ATF’s capabilities and even its technology.

“There is no national registry or no federal database of gun ownership in the U.S.,” Neil Troppman, one of the tracing center’s program managers, explained when NBC 5 Investigates visited the facility earlier this month.

The process of tracing every single firearm used in a crime in the U.S. goes through a facility in West Virginia that houses millions of paper records of gun sales that staff page through one-by-one. Take a behind-the-scenes look at the process with NBC 5 Investigates’ Phil Rogers.

When a law enforcement agency recovers a gun, they identify the firearm and submit a trace request with the serial number to the tracing center, Troppman said.

After receiving the serial number of the gun, tracers begin by contacting the manufacturer or importer, which leads them to a wholesaler or distributor, then to the retail dealer where it was first sold and hopefully, ultimately to the person who bought it.

Troppman said a trace of a single gun could involve multiple wholesale and retail dealers, but the ATF seeks to find the last retail dealer in order to find the buyer, what he called “the original sale to that first unlicensed step in the chain.”

Every time a federal firearms licensee, or FFL, sells a gun in the U.S., the seller is legally required to keep a record of that transaction. Licensed gun dealers keep their own records as long as they remain in operation.

“If we get down to the retail dealer and they’re still in business, we have a call group and they make 1,500, 2,000 phone calls a day to dealers that are still in business to say, ‘Hey this gun was traced down to your dealer, we need to, you need to access your records and let us know the individual that you sold the firearm to,’” Troppman explained.

Licensed gun dealers must comply with an ATF gun trace within 24 hours, answering the agency’s call and turning over the requested information.

But when an FFL goes out of business, they are required by law to send all of their sale records to the tracing center, where the physical copies are housed until they can be scanned. The center’s digital filing system currently contains more than 800 million records from gun stores and other retailers that have closed up shop – with more coming in every day.

“Right now we're receiving between 6 and 8 million records per month from dealers who have gone out of business,” Troppman said.

The sheer volume of records received each day has caused a major backlog in intake. When NBC 5 Investigates visited the facility last week, the backlog sat at about 20,000 boxes of records yet to be processed, each one containing records of 2,000 to 3,000 individual gun sales.

“We’ve got four high-speed scanners that are capable of scanning upwards of 200,000 scans per shift per day. And we’re running two shifts,” Troppman said.

Further complicating the process of uploading millions of records each month is that there is no standardized format and they “might look like a million different things,” Troppman said.

“We’ve gotten records in in all kinds of different formats, you know, literally just scribbled on napkins or pieces of paper,” he said, noting that federal law requires what sale information must be kept but that ATF can’t dictate how it is recorded.

“Under current law and under current regulations, I mean, you can’t automate the process of how these records are kept and again, you know, the vast, the overwhelming majority of these are all still kept hard copy and handwritten,” Troppman added.

Some arrive damaged or burned, he said, and after major flooding from a hurricane in Texas in recent years, firearms dealers that went out of business even sent in “trash bags full of soaking wet records” that had begun to grow mold.

Because the intake system is so backlogged, dozens of shipping containers sit outside the facility, full of records waiting to be uploaded.

Troppman said an employee had the idea to bring in a shipping container more than a decade earlier amid concerns the floor would collapse.

“We reached a point where there was so much weight on the floor of all these boxes that floor tiles were starting to cave in, carts were falling through the floor tiles,” Troppman said. “That was the point at which we started to bring these containers in.”

Twelve years later, he said there are now at least 35 shipping containers on the property, each filled with boxes of records.

As employees work simultaneously to upload records and trace firearms, Troppman said on any given day the tracing center could receive 50 to 100 trace requests for a dealer that’s gone out of business but whose records have not yet been processed. For those, employees must use a “very complex tracking system” to locate the dealer’s boxes, then page through the hard copy records one-by-one, with little more to guide them than simply the date the wholesaler shipped the firearm to the retailer.

But even after records are scanned into the digital system, finding the sale record of a single firearm still requires a page-by-page viewing because the ATF is legally barred from creating a searchable database.

“Even if these records have been processed, we’re still talking about not looking through pieces of paper one at a time,” Troppman said. “We’re looking at screenshots or static images of records one at a time, almost like through a filmstrip where you’re looking at frame by frame.”

Why can’t the agency create a searchable database of the information already in its possession?

“The concern is that the government would be building a database of who owns guns in America,” Troppman said.

A spokesman for the National Rifle Association said the organization believes “there is no reason for the government to maintain personal data related to lawful gun ownership” and that it has “deep concerns that such data could be abused by administrations hostile to the Second Amendment.”

So while consumer products, packages in transit, cars, airplanes and more are all searchable with a single keystroke – guns used in crimes in America are not.

Troppman said the turnaround time on a routine gun trace is about seven to 10 business days, depending on the center’s volume of work at the time – a timeline that has increased in recent years as the agency’s workload has grown.

“Not that many years ago, the turnaround time on a routine trace was four to seven days,” Troppman said. “But just because of the sheer volume of work, the trace requests that we’re getting, the number of out-of-business records that we’re getting, all of those things really slowed things down.”

But for traces that law enforcement agencies mark as urgent, ATF will devote more resources to get it done more quickly.

“Our objective is to complete an urgent trace request within 24 hours, oftentimes we’re done in hours or minutes with that urgent trace request,” Troppman said.

Still, Troppman said the tracing center is always looking at technology and ways to improve its process while staying within the confines of the laws restricting what it can do, calling the 10-day standard turnaround time “too long.”

“We’re constantly looking at ways we can just speed things up because really the result of a firearm trace is the name of the purchaser of a gun, right? And that’s the investigative lead part of the case. So the quicker we can get that back to law enforcement, the better off everybody is.”

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