Tracing guns in America: An impossibly tough job

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WGN Investigates traveled to a place most would drive by. You would never suspect a non-descript building in the middle of “somewhere” West Virginia is the largest gun tracing center in America.

It houses an impressive gun collection with 19,000 weapons. Drawer after drawer is packed with guns of all sorts and kinds. Max Kingery is the Chief of the Firearms Technology Criminal Branch with ATF. And according to Kingery, “This collection allows us to compare known firearms to a piece of evidence that we get in for evaluation.”

It is one stop where federal agents with ATF begin to identify and trace guns pulled off the streets in Chicago.

The center looks and operates more like an office phone bank, with individuals placing calls to seek information from gun dealers across the country.

Each gun in the U.S. is matched to a piece of paper.

It’s called Form 4473.

The form has the buyer’s name and address and not much else.

There is no organized national gun data base.

That is against the law.

Gun rights advocates have successfully kept Congress from allowing the creation of one.

However, current law does require individual gun dealers to keep the paper forms among their own records.

For the gun dealers that go bust, the law also requires the old records get shipped here.

There are approximately 139,000 licensed gun dealers.

But overtime, more than 700,000 have gone out of business.

There are so many boxes filled with so many records that the floor is in danger of collapse from all the weight.

Neil Troppman is in charge of overseeing all the paperwork. “When we reach a capacity of approximately 10,000 boxes roughly, we get to a point where the floors could start to buckle, the building becomes an unsafe environment.”

There are thousands upon thousands of boxes of records from closed gun shops.

Believe it or not each box must be sorted through by hand.

Troppman says, “If you came back next week and saw this, this would be a whole different set of boxes.”

Outside, there are even more boxes stored inside twelve massive shipping containers.

ATF is the only agency mandated by Congress with the authority to trace firearms.

So when an officer back in Chicago needs the Feds to run a trace on a gun, it’s a bit like finding a needle in the proverbial haystack of paper.

Troppman explains, “With as many boxes on the floor, as many as 50 or more times a day, it’s not uncommon to see a tracer walking down the hall trying to identify this dealer, pulling this box, and thumbing through these records page by page, by hand to identify that information.”

The challenge for Troppman is to bring an archaic paper system into the modern-day 21st Century.

It begins with paper records scanned into a format that can be transferred into a computer.

Troppman says, “They’re capable of 50-thousand scans per shift per day. We do have two-eight hour shifts. So these theoretically are running most of the time.”

The day WGN Investigates visited, the struggle was how to transfer index cards from the old, original Winchester Company.

Troppman acknowledges it’s history saying, “At one point it was dubbed the gun that won The West. It’s got an incredible history to it. And again when they did close for business, to my knowledge, I think another dealer bought the name brand. The name Winchester is something you want to hang on to.”

What’s more, the condition of the records shipped here can be damaged by forces of nature like Hurricane Katrina.

Troppman says the agents tell horror-stories. “They received a box from a dealer I think was from Texas that sustained a lot of the flooding that was going on down there and the box had black trash bags full of wet records, even water in the bottom of the black trash bag. They just boxed that up and shipped it in.”

The next challenge is to digitize scratchy, old microfilm.

Once the image was digitized, Troppman says they were able to go back and re-open old trace cases.

For all the ATF’s progress in transferring old paper into a scanned, enhanced and computerized form, the big final step still eludes them.

They could easily create a sleek, easy to follow, easy to track national database. But, they can’t. It’s legally forbidden.

According to Troppman, “There is no central database. There is no firearms registry. Contrary to what a lot of people think, we just have this “easy button” or this database where we can search a name. There is no such thing. That doesn’t exist.”

Congress makes it even more difficult.

Let’s say the ATF gets some records from an out-of-business gun shop in an electronic format.

The ATF is forced to print it into paper copies so a gun owner’s name can never be searched electronically.

Troppman admits, “That is searchable information because it’s already electronic. So we’re actually going backwards to make it non-searchable so that we can legally enter it into our internal system.”

Which brings us back home to the streets of Chicago and how to solve gun crimes.

With more than 2,800 shootings this year sometimes bullet casings are recovered.

Other times, it is the gun itself.

Troppman says, “We trace approximately 8-thousand guns a year and that goes up and down a little bit. We’ve traces as many as 10,000 guns from Chicago Police Department alone.”

While the ATF can trace the gun to the original owner, the purchaser may not be the killer.

Determining that depends on good old fashioned police work.

Overall, the ATF says a routine gun trace can take 4 to 7 business days, unless it's declared urgent.

In that case, they can turn it in 24 hours.

This in a facility that recently was getting 2 million records a month.