The process of tracing each gun used in a crime in the US through a facility in West Virginia that holds millions of paper records of gun sales – many shipping records brought in for safekeeping out of fear the floor might collapse – that employee page by page as they track thousands of guns every day, all of which are prohibited from creating any kind of searchable database of the information in the firearms. that profile.
The facility is the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives National Tracing Center, located in Martinsburg, West Virginia, a city of approximately 17,000 people in the Shenandoah Valley.
According to the ATF, the center is the only criminal gun tracking facility in the nation, meaning every investigation of a firearm recovered from a crime scene in the US, including every shooting in Chicago, They all passed that building.
The facility is on track to receive more than 540,000 gun tracking requests from law enforcement agencies this fiscal year alone – a record high for a labor-intensive process bound by the law. Federal law was passed under pressure from the gun lobby limiting the capabilities of the ATF and even its Technology.
“There is no national registry or federal database of gun ownership in the US,” Neil Troppman, one of the tracing center’s program managers, explained as the Investigator of NBC 5 visited the facility earlier this month.
The process of tracing each gun used in a crime in the United States through a facility in West Virginia that stores millions of paper records of gun sales that employees page one by one. Take a behind-the-scenes look at the process with NBC 5 Investigates’ Phil Rogers.
When law enforcement recovers a firearm, they will identify the gun and send a tracking request with the serial number to a tracing center, Troppman said.
After receiving the gun’s serial number, the tracer begins by contacting the manufacturer or importer, leading them to the wholesaler or distributor, and then to the retailer where it is located. sold for the first time and hopefully the last one who bought it.
Traces of a firearm can involve multiple wholesalers and retailers, Troppman said, but the ATF looks to find the ultimate retailer to find a buyer, what he calls the “initial sale for the first step.” unlicensed first in the chain.”
Every time a federal firearms licensee, or FFL, sells a firearm in the United States, the seller is required by law to keep a record of that transaction. Licensed gun dealers keep their own records as long as they remain active.
“If we go down to the reseller and they’re still in business, we have a group of calls and they make 1,500, 2,000 phone calls a day to the dealers who are still in business to say, ‘Hey, This gun was traced from your dealer, we need, you need to go to your profile and tell us the individual you sold the gun to,” Troppman explained.
Licensed gun dealers must comply with ATF gun traces within 24 hours, answer agency calls, and pass on requested information.
But when an FFL goes out of business, they are required by law to send all of their sales records to a tracing center, which holds physical copies until they can be scanned. The center’s digital record-keeping system currently holds more than 800 million records from gun stores and other retailers that have closed stores – with more arriving every day.
“Currently, we get between 6 and 8 million records a month from resellers that have gone out of business,” says Troppman.
The high volume of applications received each day has caused a large backlog of receipts. When NBC 5 Investigators visited the facility last week, the backlog was about 20,000 boxes of unprocessed records, each containing records from 2,000 to 3,000 individual firearm sales.
“We have four high-speed scanners capable of scanning up to 200,000 scans per shift per day. And we’re running two shifts,” Troppman said.
Further complicating the process of uploading millions of records per month, Troppman adds, is that there is no standard format and they “could look like a million different things”.
“We received records in all sorts of different formats, just scribbled on napkins or pieces of paper,” he said, noting that federal law requires sales information to be is stored, but the ATF cannot prescribe how it is recorded.
“By current law and by current regulations, I mean you can’t automate the process of keeping these records and again, you know, most of these records are still kept in hardcopy. and handwritten,” added Troppman.
Some of the vehicles arrived damaged or burned, he said, and after major hurricane flooding in Texas in recent years, gun dealers who had gone out of business even sent “bags of trash full of wet profile” has started to grow into mold.
Due to the backlog of the pickup system, dozens of shipping containers are located outside the facility, full of documents waiting to be uploaded.
Troppman said an employee got the idea to bring in a shipping container more than a decade earlier amid fears the floor would collapse.
“We got to the point where the floor of all these boxes was so heavy that the floor tiles started to jam, the cart fell through the floor tiles,” says Troppman. “That’s when we started putting these containers in.”
Twelve years later, he says, there are at least 35 shipping containers on the property, each filled with boxes of files.
As agents work concurrently to upload records and trace weapons, Troppman said on any given day, the traceability center can receive between 50 and 100 tracking requests for an agent. The agent has stopped doing business but the application is still not processed. For those, employees must use a “very sophisticated tracking system” to locate dealer boxes, then page each record back in hardcopy, simply instructing them not only to simply the day the wholesaler ships the gun to the retailer. .
But even after records are scanned into a digital system, finding a firearm’s sale records still requires a page-by-page view because the ATF is prohibited from creating legally searchable databases.
“Even if these files are processed, we’re still talking about not going through every piece of paper,” Troppman said. “We’re looking at each screenshot or still image of the recordings, almost like through a reel of film where you’re viewing frame by frame.”
Why can’t this agency create a searchable database of information already in its possession?
“The concern is that the government will build a database of gun owners 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 legal gun ownership” and it is “deeply concerned”. that such data could be misused by governments hostile to the Second Amendment. ”
So while consumer products, packages in transit, cars, planes and more are all searchable at the press of a key – guns are used in crimes in America. Are not.
Troppman says the typical turnaround time for a gun track is about 7 to 10 business days, depending on the center’s workload at the time — the timeline has increased in recent years as blocks The workload of the agency is increasing.
“Not many years ago, the turnaround time on a typical trace was four to seven days,” says Troppman. “But just because of the sheer volume of work, the tracking requests we’re getting, the number of jobless claims we’re getting, all of that has really slowed things down.”
But for trails that law enforcement agencies mark as urgent, the ATF will devote more resources to completing it more quickly.
“Our goal is to complete an urgent follow-up request within 24 hours, sometimes we complete within hours or minutes with that urgent follow-up request,” Troppman said.
However, Troppman said the tracking center is always looking at technology and ways to improve its processes while still following the limits of laws that limit what it can do, calling the standard turnaround time. The standard 10 days is “too long”.
“We are constantly looking for ways to speed things up because really the result of a gun trail is the name of the person buying the gun, right? And that is the main investigative part of the case. So the quicker we can get it back to law enforcement, the better for everyone. “
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