Only about a third of the nation’s 17,000 local law enforcement agencies regularly request federal assistance for “trace information” identifying the source of firearms used in crimes, says USA Today. “There may be law enforcement agencies out there not asking for it because they don’t think they have access to it,” says Michael Sullivan, acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). For investigators, the trace information is often key to tracking suspects in gun-related crimes. Using serial numbers and other information from recovered weapons, federal authorities can compel firearms manufacturers and dealers to provide data on who first bought the weapon and when.
Federal authorities say they tend to receive repeated requests for help every year mostly from the same 6,000 law enforcement agencies – and rarely hear from the other 11,000. Sullivan says conflicting interpretations of federal law may be contributing to false perceptions that the police are no longer able to receive the information. A national coalition called Mayors Against Illegal Guns, want broader access to the trace information, saying that when analyzed in bulk it could help cities target illegal gun dealers more effectively. John Feinblatt, criminal justice coordinator for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a leader of the coalition, says it has been “impossible to get a straight answer out of the ATF,” about the rules for requests on trace data. He said ATF had turned down requests from some cities attempting to “use trace data to map the black market” for illegal weapons.