SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

Nation/World

January 30, 2013

After gun crime, weapon history takes time to find

(Continued)

That's where the paper trail ends.

In about 30 percent of cases, one or all of those folks have gone out of business and ATF tracers are left to sort through potentially thousands of out-of-business records forwarded to the ATF and stored at the office building that more closely resembles a remote call center than a law enforcement operation.

The records are stored as digital pictures that can only be searched one image at a time. Two shifts of contractors spend their days taking staples out of papers, sorting through thousands of pages and scanning or taking pictures of the records.

"Those records come in all different shapes and forms. We have to digitally image them, we literally take a picture of it," Houser said. "We have had rolls of toilet paper or paper towels ... because they (dealers) did not like the requirement to keep records."

The tracing center receives about a million out-of-business records every month and Houser runs the center's sorting and imaging operations from 6 a.m. to midnight, five days a week. The images are stored on old-school microfilm reels or as digital images. But there's no way to search the records, other than to scroll through one picture of a page at a time.

"We are ... prohibited from amassing the records of active dealers," Houser said. "It means that if a dealer is in business he maintains his records."

Last year, the center traced about 344,000 guns for 6,000 different law enforcement agencies. Houser has a success rate of about 90 percent, so long as enough information is provided. And he boasts that every successful trace provides at least one lead in a criminal case.

"It's a factory for the production of investigative leads," Houser said of the tracing center.

A 1968 overhaul of federal gun laws required licensed dealers to keep paper records of who buys what guns and gave ATF the authority to track the history of a gun if was used in a crime. But in the intervening decades, the National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups lobbied Congress to limit the government's ability to do much with what little information is collected, including keeping track on computers.

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