Rare look inside nation's gun tracing center
The News 4 Trouble Shooters traveled the country to find out how police connect a criminal to a gun, how long it takes and why most of the searching is done by hand.
"If he did it once, to my son - who's to say he's not going to do it again,” asks San Antonio mother Lori Rocha.
She won’t rest until she knows who shot and killed her son Aaron, the victim of random road rage.
"I want justice. My son deserves justice,” Rocha says.
Police never found the gun. When they do, the gun is traced from manufacturer to seller to buyer.
"They've built in a level of anonymity on purpose to protect the consumer and the lawful gun owner,” explains Jonathan Hirsch, the owner of San Antonio gun store Adelbridge & Co. Firearms.
It’s the race to find criminals versus the politics of guns, and sitting at the tipping point of the scale: the small town of Martinsburg, West Virginia.
"So, right here we're in the ATF National Tracing Center,” says ATF program manager Neil Troppman while walking the Trouble Shooters through the doors of the West Virginia facility.
He says everything that there is guided by federal law.
"We cannot establish any sort of a database of names of the purchasers of firearms, or firearms ownership in the country,” Troppman says. “So there's no national database or registry of who owns what gun."
In other words, you can’t type a name into a computer and immediately solve a crime.
"I think a lot of people are surprised,” Troppman says. “Sometimes law enforcement doesn't even realize that there's a whole manual process."
Tracers make 1,500 phone calls a day to active gun dealers - stores that are still in business.
Stores that have gone out of business must send their records to the tracing center, where digital forms are de-digitized and paper forms are sorted by hand.
"Recently, we had a very large retailer go out of business. We were receiving records by the tractor-trailer load,” Troppman says.
Everywhere you look are boxes. There are 10,000 boxes inside the building. After that, the floor starts buckling. The rest are kept outside in storage containers.
"This is the record of receipt of every firearm,” Troppman says while showing the Trouble Shooters the contents of a box inside a storage container.
The are more than 20 storage containers on the property, each with nearly 1,000 boxes. And each of those boxes has about 3,000 pages inside.
All paper records that enter the facility are scanned by machines that can handle several hundred thousand records per day.
"These are not scanned in any type of searchable format,” Troppman says. “They're just static images."
Tracers flip through the digital photos one at a time, looking for a serial number provided by police.
"We treat every trace request as if that's going to be the piece of information that solves that crime for that law enforcement agency,” Troppman says.
For urgent traces like mass shootings, it’s all hands on deck. Information is found within 24 hours.
Routine traces take ten days, and that’s longer than the ATF would like. But speeding up the system by making it digital is against the law.
"We're not looking for a national registry of firearms, by any means,” says Hirsch, the gun store owner.
He says an electronic database could threaten gun rights.
"We've seen gun turn-ins and gun confiscations in other countries,” Hirsch says. “[Gun rights] are fundamental to who we are as a people, and we don't want any erosion of that."
Rocha, the grieving mother, joined Moms Demand Action, a group pushing for a modernized tracing system to solve gun crimes faster.
"It's not about taking people's guns away at all. It's about making it safer,” she says. "I'll keep fighting for justice until my very last breath."
Meantime, the ATF is getting more trace requests than ever before. The agency maintains it must steer clear of politics and work within the regulations and guidelines of federal law.
By EMILY BAUCUM