WASHINGTON — In the fictional world of television police dramas, a few quick clicks on a computer lead investigators to the owner of a gun recovered at a bloody crime scene. Before the first commercial, the TV detectives are on the trail of the suspect.
Reality is a world away. There is no national database of guns. Not of who owns them, how many are sold annually or even how many exist.
Federal law bars the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives from keeping track of guns. The only time the government can track the history of a gun, including its first buyer and seller, is after it's used in a crime. And though President Barack Obama and numerous Democratic lawmakers have called for new limits on what kinds of guns should be available to the public and urged stronger background checks in gun sales, there is no effort afoot to change the way the government keeps track — or doesn't — of where the country's guns are.
And tracing a gun is a decidedly low-tech process.
"It's not CSI and it's not a sophisticated computer system," said Charles J. Houser, who runs the ATF's National Tracing Center in Martinsburg, W.Va.
To trace a gun, the search starts with police sending all the information they have about the gun — including the manufacturer and model — to an office worker in a low-slung brick building just off the Appalachian Trial in rural West Virginia, about 90 miles northwest of Washington.
ATF officials first call the manufacturer, who reveals which wholesaler the company used. That may lead to a call to a second distributor before investigators can pinpoint the retail gun dealer who first sold the weapon. Gun dealers are required to keep a copy of federal forms that detail who buys what gun and a log for guns sold. They are required to share that information with the ATF if a gun turns up at a crime scene and authorities want it traced. Often, gun shops fax the paperwork to the ATF.
That's where the paper trail ends.
In about 30 percent of cases, one or all of those folks have gone out of business and ATF tracers are left to sort through potentially thousands of out-of-business records forwarded to the ATF and stored at the office building that more closely resembles a remote call center than a law enforcement operation.
The records are stored as digital pictures that can only be searched one image at a time. Two shifts of contractors spend their days taking staples out of papers, sorting through thousands of pages and scanning or taking pictures of the records.
"Those records come in all different shapes and forms. We have to digitally image them, we literally take a picture of it," Houser said. "We have had rolls of toilet paper or paper towels . . . because they (dealers) did not like the requirement to keep records."
The tracing center receives about a million out-of-business records every month and Houser runs the center's sorting and imaging operations from 6 a.m. to midnight, five days a week. The images are stored on old-school microfilm reels or as digital images. But there's no way to search the records, other than to scroll through one picture of a page at a time.
"We are . . . prohibited from amassing the records of active dealers," Houser said. "It means that if a dealer is in business he maintains his records."
Last year the center traced about 344,000 guns for 6,000 different law enforcement agencies. Houser has a success rate of about 90 percent, so long as enough information is provided. And he boasts that every successful trace provides at least one lead in a criminal case.
"It's a factory for the production of investigative leads," Houser said of the tracing center.
A 1968 overhaul of federal gun laws required licensed dealers to keep paper records of who buys what guns and gave ATF the authority to track the history of a gun if was used in a crime. But in the intervening decades, the National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups lobbied Congress to limit the government's ability to do much with what little information is collected, including keeping track on computers.