TAMPA - When a gun is recovered during a police search or after the commission of a crime, investigators across America depend on the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to help them document the weapon's history.
In Florida, the ATF traced 18,714 guns that were recovered by law enforcement investigators in 2009, the latest year for which such data are available.
The ATF research is done at the bureau's National Tracing Center in Martinsburg, W.Va., about 90 miles from Washington, D.C. The center houses 444 million records, most of them on paper. Congress has prohibited the bureau from maintaining a national database of lawful gun owners.
The research is tedious. ATF staffers must go through the paper records by hand. Yet, despite the congressionally-imposed handicaps, the ATF successfully traces up to 1,400 guns a day for law enforcement investigators throughout the country.
"This is a big factory for producing investigative leads," said Charles Houser, chief of the center. "Without the trace information, you've got nothing. You've got simply guns recovered at crime scenes."
The number of traces that the ATF was asked to conduct for Florida investigators has risen slowly but steadily since 2006. That year, ATF agents tracked 16,509 guns recovered in the state. The number of traces went up 13 percent between 2006 and 2009.