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ATF's oversight limited in face of gun lobby
When police contact the ATF, tracing specialists take identifying information about the gun, such as the serial number, make and model. In most cases, they have to contact the gun's manufacturer to find out where it was shipped from the factory. The researcher then follows the distribution chain to find the retail dealer that first sold the weapon. The researcher calls the dealer to get the identity of the first buyer, whose name should be on an ATF form "4473," the three-page buyer questionnaire that dealers are required to keep on file.
Dealers are also required to report to the ATF when someone buys more than one handgun from them within five consecutive business days, a red flag for potential trafficking. The gun lobby has opposed a similar requirement for rifles and shotguns - a dealer can sell the same purchaser dozens of semiautomatic rifles, such as AK-47s, and not be required to report the sales.
"They're less likely to be used in crime," said John C. Frazier, director of the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action.
Depending on how well a dealer keeps records, a firearms trace can take hours or weeks. But one-third of all gun traces come from the records of out-of-business gun dealers. In those cases, there is no one to call.
When firearms dealers close, they are required to box up their records and send them to the Martinsburg tracing center. Charles Houser, who oversees the center, and his staff are inundated by the thousands of boxes of records that come in on the trucks each month. They are stacked high along the walls and between cubicles. Last year, the backlog of boxes waiting to be sorted and digitally copied reached 12,000.
"I was absolutely appalled and depressed at what they are going through out there," Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (D-W.Va.), chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science, told ATF officials at a hearing this year. "Literally you see pallets of these records come in, and they're just absolutely overwhelmed."
ATF employees, many of them hunkered over folding tables, go through a tedious process of sorting, stacking, cataloguing and deciphering. From the boxes, they pull out gun-sales records on ink-smeared, yellowed index cards and dog-eared ledger books filled with faded pencil. If they are lucky, they find 4473s written in clear, legible handwriting. Inside the dealer's boxes, workers sometimes find ammunition, the odd gun part - or rat feces. Some records have languished in attics for decades. Others have been underwater.
"Katrina was a mess," Houser said.
Gun dealers all over the Gulf Coast region were driven out of business by the hurricane, and they sent their wet and mildewing records to Martinsburg. For months, paper files sat in the center's parking lot, drying in the sun.
The difficulties at the tracing center have slowed efforts to trace guns seized from crime scenes all over the country - as well as in Mexico, where most of the seized weapons come from U.S. gun dealers, according to congressional reports.
Traces are most useful within the first few days, but it took the ATF an average of about two weeks to complete traces of firearms recovered in Mexico between 2004 and 2008, according to a congressional report last year on the ATF's efforts to combat arms trafficking to that country. In addition, the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General said the ATF doesn't have enough Spanish-speaking personnel and has been slow in developing a tracing system in Spanish.
Agency without a leader
In addition to its problems with recordkeeping, the ATF, with a $1.4 billion budget, has not had a confirmed director in four years.