The shell casings had barely cooled on a New York street when federal agents began trying to determine how three pistols got in the hands of the men who gunned down two police officers, reports the Associated Press. In a few hours, they learned that the guns were originally sold by three shops in southern states. Powerful computer databases told them two of the weapons were several years old. Agents soon headed south, hunting for prior owners of the weapons who might explain how the guns traveled to New York from Virginia, Tennessee, and Alabama.
It was routine work for one of the six regional gun-tracing centers run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Each day, the centers combine science and shoe-leather detective work to track hundreds of firearms from crime scenes, looking for clues that can lead to a big break or put them on the trail of a gunrunner. “The hardware we have is top-notch. The software continues to improve, and our analysts are great,” said Andrew Traver, AFT agent in charge in Chicago. High tech isn’t a cure-all, he said. But it helps agents stay on top of a mountain of guns. Last year, Chicago police requested trace information on nearly 13,000 firearms.