Martinsburg, W. Va. - Jan. 23, 2013


1. SOUNDBITE: Charles Houser / Special Agent, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives

"My name is Charles Houser. I'm a special agent with ATF. And this is ATF's National Tracing Center here in Martinsburg, West Virginia."

2. Medium on ATF seal on wall

3. Exterior of National Tracing Center

4. Street in Martinsburg downtown

5. County court house in Martinsburg

6. NAT SOUND imaging machine processing documents

7. SOUNDBITE: Charles Houser / Special Agent, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives

"In essence, this is a factory for the production of investigative leads. We trace firearms for federal, state and local law enforcement. Where a law enforcement agency recovers a gun at a crime scene, they can submit a trace request in order for us to determine who the purchaser of that firearm was."

8. Documents flying by on imaging machine

9. Worker picking up finished documents

10. Screen shot of digital documents

11. Wide of worker pulling microfilm in library


New York - Dec. 10, 2009

12. STILL of police at crime scene with gun


Philadelphia - Sept. 24, 2007

13. STILL of officer with crime scene tape


Martinsburg, W. Va. - Jan. 23, 2013

14. NAT SOUND worker shuffling papers

15. SOUNDBITE: Charles Houser / Special Agent, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives

"Most of it is simply searching through paper records like this, and paper records like you may see back here. Searching through microfilm and historic records and calling dealers and manufacturers and wholesalers on the telephone ... at a pace of about 1,400 trace requests per day."

16. Medium of worker sorting papers

17. Tilt down from Hurricane Katrina sticker to water damaged documents

18. Worker selecting microfilm cases from drawer

19. Tight on paper card files

20. Slow pan over variety of paper documents

21. SOUNDBITE: Charles Houser / Special Agent, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives

"The process can be awkward. It appears awkward. But some of the controls are for pretty good reason in order to prevent the federal government from creating ... either deliberately or even inadvertently a registration system for firearms."

22. Medium on stacks of documents

23. Medium on boxes with documents

24. Workers sorting documents at table

25. Tight on box of paper scraps, staples

26. SOUNDBITE: Charles Houser / Special Agent, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives

"How do we know where the firearms trafficking routes are, and where the sources of illegal crime guns are, and where the markets are for crime guns? The only way we know that is because other law enforcement agencies trace those firearms."

27. Walk along row of file shelves

28. SOUNDBITE: Charles Houser / Special Agent, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives

"90 percent of the time I can give you a purchaser. 90 percent of the time I can give you at least one investigative lead. Many of those times I can give you more than one investigative lead on the same gun. So is it worth it? Yeah, it's worth it. It is for me."


Even after a horrific mass shooting, and even in the computer age, it isn't easy for federal agents to trace the ownership of a pistol or rifle. Researchers who study gun violence bemoan the lack of data on ownership or details about guns used in shootings. But the void of reliable information about guns in America is exactly how Congress wants it. The Associated Press visits the ATF facility in West Virginia, where gun records are processed out of outdated, paper filing cabinets.

When police want to track down the history of a gun, there's no computer system to run to and instantly find out who bought it or where it came from. Even gun serial numbers aren't unique.

Instead, police send all the information they can find about the gun, including the manufacturer and model, to an office worker in a low-slung brick building just off the Appalachian Trial in rural West Virginia, about 90 miles northwest of Washington.

The search starts with an old-fashioned phone call to the manufacturer, who details which wholesaler the company dealt with. That may lead to a call to a second distributor before investigators finally dial the federally licensed gun dealer that first sold the weapon. Gun dealers are required to keep a copy of federal forms that detail who buys what gun and a log for guns sold and share that information with the ATF if a gun turns up at a crime scene and authorities want it traced. Oftentimes gun shops use fax machines to get a copy of that paperwork to the ATF.

That's where the paper trail ends.

In a perfect situation everyone is still in business, with their required paperwork in order and at the ready when the phone rings. But 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 sent to the ATF and stored at the office building that more closely resembles a remote call center than a law enforcement operation.

The records aren't computerized. Instead, 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.

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 advocacy groups have successfully 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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