Behind-the-scenes look at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives National Tracing Center

Posted at 2:17 PM, Oct 12, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-13 18:29:54-04

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - News 3 is has been investigating how law enforcement keeps track of firearms throughout our region.

All year long, News 3 has brought you extensive coverage on how police trace firearms, especially those used in crimes and guns illegally bought for those who legally can't own them.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is a government agency working hand-in-hand with law enforcement on tracing firearms.

"ATF is the only federal law enforcement agency tasked with tracing of firearms," ATF Program Manager Neil Troppman told News 3. "We regulate the firearms industry."

News 3 Investigative Team Producer Kelly Dietz and Investigative Photojournalist Wayne Pellenberg got behind the scenes access to the agency's National Tracing Center in West Virginia.

Troppman called the facility, "the only facility of its kind in the world."

"Law enforcement, nationwide, when they recover firearms through the course of an investigation, they submit the descriptions of those firearms to the ATF National Tracing Center so that we can trace those firearms for them," he said.

Troppman told News 3 that on any given day, the center gets upwards of 1,700 firearm trace requests.

"This past fiscal year, we traced over 490,000 requests for firearms traces," Troppman said. "This year, we're expecting to surpass 540,000 trace requests coming in."

"What we're attempting to do by piecing together that chain of distribution of the gun is to identify that first unlicensed retail purchaser of the firearm," Troppman added. "That would be used as the investigative lead or piece of information we'd want to provide back to law enforcement to determine: Is that the person associated with this crime? Is that the suspect in this investigation? How was the gun purchased by one individual and now is in possession of another individual or is being used in a crime by somebody else? Then, it becomes good, old-fashioned police work - whether by ATF or by the state and local law enforcement - in determining how that gun went from the legal sale of the gun to being recovered in a crime."

Norfolk Police Chief Larry Boone said their teamwork with ATF has helped in their efforts of tracing down firearms.

"It's not just local law enforcement. ATF, FBI - we have a great working relationship with our federal partners," Boone told News 3. "We've made an effort with the partnership of ATF to look at every gun we've recovered - who purchased it, where it ultimately ends up, how long it takes from purchase to use in crime and how it's impacting the communities."

When it comes to traces, Troppman said there are essentially two types.

First, a routine trace.

"It's your run of the mill firearms recovery," he said. "Law enforcement submits the trace requests, and our turnaround time on that right now is approximately 7-10 business days. We'd like to see that shorter."

The other, being an urgent firearms trace.

"If it's a high-profile shooting, if it's a mass shooting, if it's something that's being covered live on television, if it's police officer-involved or kidnapping - something that's time-sensitive as determined by the requesting law enforcement agency, then we will trace that as an urgent firearm trace request," Troppman said. "Our objective here is to get it done within 24 hours. Oftentimes, we're able to get that trace completed within hours or minutes."

"Essentially, what we're doing is allocating more trace resources to that particular trace," Troppman added.

The biggest reason a trace would be delayed or unsuccessful is due to the firearm not being properly identified.

"What we really need is all the identifying marks on that firearm submitted with the trace request to ensure that we're tracing the right firearm," Troppman said.

News 3 also asked ATF officials about obliterated serial numbers on firearms. They told News 3 they estimate between 5-10% of firearms recovered in crimes have obliterated markings or serial numbers, and the center has lab processes to help restore the numbers and continue traces if necessary.

Troppman said tracing hasn't been impacted negatively by the COVID-19 pandemic, but rather, in a positive way.

"We're doing a lot of our processes remotely now. We've found, in some cases, it's actually more productive with employees working from home (and) doing things at different times."

They've also seen a multi-year trend with more trace requests coming in.

"We feel that law enforcement is starting to realize really what a valuable tool that is in their investigations that involve crime guns," Troppman told News 3. "There's just an un-measurable amount of information that's available from trace data that would assist law enforcement in those investigations."

"What we need to do is to encourage and train law enforcement on what to do with that information to work bigger investigations," Troppman added.

Aside from tracing at the National Tracing Center, ATF officials do outreach programs and raise awareness of trends, including straw purchasing, and promote responsible gun ownership.

"I've had the privilege of going down to Norfolk and conducting training in the Hampton Roads area," Troppman said. "We had multiple police agencies within that region that came to the training."

Both he and Chief Boone hope to see local and federal law enforcement continue to team up and get results.

"If I'm in law enforcement, and I recover a firearm that's part of a criminal investigation, my next question is how did that gun come to be involved in that crime?" Troppman said.

"We could do some damage in Hampton Roads if every department and our federal partners got together and focused on who's providing these weapons, and we're starting to do that," Boone said. "We've had conversations about how we go about addressing just that. I just wonder if the appetite will be continuing in the long run."

Related: Trigger Trace: A look into guns recovered throughout Hampton Roads

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