By Ross Arends, Supervisory Special Agent, U.S. Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives; and IACP Fellow
he International Association of Chiefs of Police and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) have joined forces on a grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), U.S. Department of Justice, to study the impact of a collaborative project among the ATF, fusion centers, and local law enforcement to analyze firearms trace data along the northeast corridor of Interstate 95. This article highlights the work that carries forward the ATF’s commitment to improving the collection, the analysis, and use of firearms trace data in investigations.
The Development of the ATF iTrafficking Program
One of the primary missions of the ATF is to protect U.S. communities from the illegal use and trafficking of firearms. Accordingly, a high priority for the ATF is firearms tracing, which is a key source of information to identify leads in firearms trafficking investigations.
Firearms tracing is the systematic tracking of the movement of a firearm recovered by law enforcement officials from the manufacturer or from its introduction into U.S. commerce by the importer—through the distribution chain (wholesaler/retailer) to the first retail purchaser. Recovered firearms are traced by ATF and local law enforcement agencies to
- link a suspect to a firearm in a criminal investigation;
- identify potential firearms traffickers, whether licensed or unlicensed sellers; and
- detect in-state, interstate, and international patterns in the sources and types of guns recovered in crimes.
The tracing and the analysis of all crime guns is a tool that assists
- local law enforcement in criminal investigations,
- ATF firearms trafficking groups with a picture of the local illicit gun market, and
- ATF field intelligence groups with information related to firearms trafficking patterns.
In support of the ATF’s national firearms trafficking enforcement strategy, the ATF has deployed a new initiative at several fusion centers called the iTrafficking Program (referred to as iTrafficking).
In August 2009, ATF officials and superintendants from various state police organizations met to discuss the role that state fusion centers could play in firearms trafficking investigations. A successful model had recently been established in the New Jersey Regional Operations and Intelligence Center (ROIC), where the ATF and the New Jersey State Police were successfully collaborating on firearms trafficking investigations. The two groups had established a joint firearms trafficking task force in the ROIC. The task force investigated leads generated from firearms trace data. In New Jersey, firearms tracing is mandated by law by the state Attorney General’s office, which in 2007 directed all police departments in the state to trace all recovered firearms.
The ATF goal in iTrafficking was to ensure complete tracing of crime guns and to implement a regional approach to firearms trafficking investigations through partnerships with state fusion centers in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland, similar to the task force and relationship that had been established in the New Jersey ROIC. These selected states are often the recipient states of firearms in the so-called iron pipeline.
Because of limited special agent positions, the ATF decided to hire contractors with ATF or law enforcement experience in these fusion centers to increase the level of firearms tracing, coordinate firearms trafficking investigations, and act as general ATF liaisons. Contractors were hired in December 2010 and each received an initial weeklong training in eTrace, nForce (the computerized ATF case management system), the ATF National Tracing Center, firearms identification, fusion center operations, and other topics.
The iTrafficking contractors are helping to ensure that all crime guns recovered are traced and that complete and accurate trace information is entered into the ATF’s eTrace application or the ATF F 3312.1, Trace Request Form. The iTrafficking contractors are verifying that all trace requests and entries into the eTrace application from the applicable state or local law enforcement agency contain complete firearms information, possessor information, and complete location information. The trace information is then analyzed and researched to identify potential firearms trafficking leads and to provide firearms trafficking trends, including mapping of pertinent trace information to assist local, tribal, state, and federal law enforcement agencies.
The Gun Control Act in 1968 required records to be kept in the acquisition, possession, and disposition of all firearms. The law required individuals or businesses that sold guns to obtain licenses and keep records on all purchases. Various crime bills of 1984, 1988, and 1994 further amended the Gun Control Act. The Gun Control Act and subsequent amendments affect the interstate transportation of firearms, leaving the majority of gun control to state and local jurisdictions.
The success of a firearm trace depends heavily on the ATF Firearms Transaction Record, Form 4473, which purchasers must complete and sign at the time of purchase. The dealer is required to retain this form. If the dealer goes out of business, the law requires that these forms be forwarded to the ATF for storage. After law enforcement recovers and traces a firearm, the ATF contacts the dealer who examines his or her records, including 4473s, for information concerning the sale of the firearm.
The ATF’s National Tracing Center (NTC) is the United States’ only crime gun tracing facility. As such, the NTC provides critical information that helps domestic and international law enforcement agencies solve firearms crimes; detect firearms trafficking; and track the intrastate, interstate, and international movement of crime guns.
The ATF’s web-based firearms tracing system—eTrace—is available to domestic and international law enforcement agencies to assist in the tracing of U.S.-sourced firearms. eTrace is a paperless firearms trace request submission system and an interactive firearms trace analysis tool that provides an electronic exchange of crime gun incident-based data in a secure, web-based environment. Through eTrace, law enforcement agencies can electronically submit firearms trace requests, monitor the progress of traces, retrieve completed trace results, and query firearms trace-related data. eTrace includes analytical and download capabilities for the ATF’s firearms trace information, including selective field searches and statistical reporting. eTrace also has a referral list capability that allows participating agencies to learn if the purchaser, possessor, associate, licensed place of sale, and recovery location have been identified in other traces by any other law enforcement agency that is tracing firearms.
To access and utilize the eTrace, the only equipment an agency needs is a computer and access to the Internet, allowing even the smallest of agencies to trace their firearms and perform online data analysis. eTrace access is achieved by obtaining a valid user ID and password from the ATF. Each participating agency also enters into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the ATF. The MOU is intended to formalize a partnership among the participating agencies with regard to policy and procedures relative to the access and utilization of eTrace. Once on eTrace, agencies can enter new traces, view existing traces, and run reports on traces that their agency entered. Only ATF users of the eTrace application (this includes ATF employees, ATF task force officers, and ATF contractors) are able to view trace results from all agencies. In accordance with applicable appropriations laws and ATF policy, non-ATF users can access trace data only if the data originated from their particular agency.
ATF Policy and Laws Impacting the Sharing of Firearms Trace Data
Starting in 2003, the U.S. Congress has annually passed language in the ATF’s appropriation that prevents the public release of ATF trace data. The trace data disclosure restriction is commonly referred to as the Tiahrt Amendments after its sponsor, former U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-KS).
Generally, the congressional appropriation bill language has prohibited the ATF from sharing or releasing trace data unless the release was for law enforcement purposes. Various iterations of the disclosure restrictions have existed since the original 2003 language. During most of the years, the language limited the sharing of trace data only “in connection with and for use in a criminal investigation or prosecution.” However, since fiscal year (FY) 2010, Congress has removed this provision, and the limitation no longer exists.
With the FY 2010 change to the trace data disclosure restriction, the sharing of trace data in specific criminal investigations and to identify jurisdictional trends or patterns should have ceased to be an issue. It should be noted that the remaining portions of the restriction did nothing more than codify the ATF’s longstanding policy of sharing trace data with other law enforcement agencies for the purpose of conducting a criminal investigation. The ATF routinely shares trace data with state and local law enforcement agencies in support of investigations within their respective jurisdictions.
The ATF continues its internal policy of not sharing one law enforcement agency’s trace data with other agencies because the wholesale release of an agency’s trace data to another could compromise potentially unknown and ongoing current law enforcement investigations and, more importantly, could jeopardize the safety of undercover police officers.
Further, the ATF has entered into thousands of eTrace MOUs, many of which were signed before FY 2010, which have the following provision:
The parties agree that premature disclosure of certain firearms trace information can reasonably be expected to interfere with pending or prospective law enforcement proceedings. This law enforcement–sensitive information includes data that can link a traced firearm to the location of a crime; the federal firearms licensee; the retail purchaser or possessor of a traced firearm; or to firearms trafficking patterns involving a traced firearm. It is agreed that the law enforcement–sensitive firearms trace information generated pursuant to this agreement shall not be disclosed to a third party without the consent of both parties of this agreement, or as required by a court of law.
As an example of a possible scenario, a detective in the Prince George’s County, Maryland, Police Department (PGCPD) traces a recently recovered firearm in eTrace. An individual named Steven S. Stevenson possessed the firearm. After several days, the detective logs back into eTrace and observes that the trace has been completed. The detective learns from eTrace that the firearm was traced to an individual, John J. Johnson, who purchased the firearm at a federal firearms licensee (FFLs), in Frederick, Maryland, several weeks ago. The detective also learns through eTrace that Mr. Johnson purchased three other firearms at FFLs in Frederick that were recovered and traced by the Frederick Police Department. eTrace provides the detective with a contact person in the Frederick Police Department whom he could contact for additional information about these three traces. Through this contact, the PGCPD detective may learn that Frederick officers are utilizing undercover officers to purchase firearms from a gang member. Clearly, the PGCPD would not want to jeopardize this ongoing case and would tread carefully with its investigation. The ATF would not have this background information or any other specifics about the Frederick Police Department investigation.
Could the ATF share the results of the three traces with PGCPD to include the purchasers of those firearms and the FFLs who sold the firearms? Legally, the congressional trace restriction permits the ATF to share this information. However, pursuant to ATF policy and the eTrace MOUs that have been signed, the PGCPD will not be provided that information, unless Frederick police agree to the disclosure.
The ATF’s sound policy of not jeopardizing ongoing investigations or undercover police officers is often the reason trace data are not shared. Confusion about the so-called Tiahrt Amendments is often to blame; however, they are really not the impediment.
While the ATF’s policy of not sharing one agency’s trace data with another agency does exist, there are still ways in which multiple agencies can work together using trace data. Multijurisdictional trace data are utilized by the ATF and shared with fellow law enforcement agencies to identify firearm trafficking trends and leads. Also, in certain circumstances depending upon state law and guidance and individual agency agreements to share data within fusion centers, there are instances where trace data may be shared with other state and local law enforcement agencies within the fusion center for the purposes of producing fused intelligence products and investigative leads. Further, nothing prohibits the ATF from releasing aggregate reports that analyze trace-data trends that could be used by law enforcement.
BJA Grant to the IACP: Examine the iTrafficking Program
In December 2010, the BJA awarded a $250,000 grant to IACP to research and examine iTrafficking to determine ways in which gun trace data could more effectively be included in fusion center intelligence reports and business practice. To date, the project has accomplished the following:
- An advisory group was selected in concert with the IACP Firearms Committee to guide project development and implementation.
- A fusion center survey instrument was circulated to assess the state of practice on crime gun tracing policies.
- The project team is consolidating information from site visits to complete a promising practices document by fusion centers currently collecting crime gun tracing data.
- The project team continues to search for any statutory issues and barriers to impede implementation of a crime gun tracing intelligence sharing strategy.
- A mobile app was designed and distributed by the project team using the ATF’s Police Officers Guide to Recovered Firearms. Since its launch in January, more than 21,000 downloads have been counted. This app is part of the project’s push to improve firearms tracing.
IACP staff is examining the results of the fusion center interviews and will assess the fusion center surveys once all are received. Finally, IACP staff will prepare and disseminate a firearms tracing intelligence-sharing strategy report that summarizes the review and the evaluation of iTrafficking. This review ideally will be used by fusion center personnel and all state, local, and tribal law enforcement to assist in the examination of firearms trace data used in intelligence products and criminal investigations.
The integration of firearms trace data into the fusion centers results in even closer collaboration among federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement. As fusion centers evolve into all-crime and all-hazards intelligence centers, a focus on firearms tracing and firearms trafficking enhances the collaborative environment. The IACP is looking forward to sharing best practices, educational material, and other information that results from this initiative. ♦
Please cite as:
Ross Arends, "The ATF’s iTrafficking Program: Linking Firearms Trace Data with State Fusion Centers," The Police Chief 79 (September 2012): 5053.