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.
When police want to trace a gun, it's 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.
When police trace a gun, the search starts by 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.
"They (lawmakers) feel that the act of amassing those records would in essence go a step toward creating an artificial registration system," Houser said.
What the ATF can do is give trace information to the law enforcement agency that asked for it and in some cases uses the data to help point them in the direction of other crimes.
Houser said the "manually intensive process" can take about five days for a routine trace. In some cases, completing the trace can mean sifting by hand through paperwork that hasn't yet been scanned.
In more urgent situations, including the immediate aftermath of a mass shooting in Connecticut last year, ATF agents run a trace within about 24 hours. Oftentimes, that involves sending agents to the gun dealer that first sold the weapon to quickly find the paperwork listing its original buyer.
Despite having access to millions of records about gun purchases from dealers that have gone out of business, the ATF isn't allowed to create a database of what guns were sold to whom and when.
ATF does keep tabs on how many guns are manufactured and shipped out of the country every year, but only gun makers and dealers know for sure how many are sold. There are also strict limits on what the agency can do with the gun trace information. And that's just the way the gun lobby and Congress want it.
Various laws and spending bills have specifically barred the ATF from creating a national database of guns and gun owners. And due to the efforts of lawmakers, including former Rep. Todd Tiahrt of Kansas, ATF agents who trace the history of a gun can't share that information with anyone but the police agency that asked for it.
As it stands now, local law enforcement doesn't have access to regional data about gun traces. So if the police commissioner in New York City is trying to figure out where the guns are coming into the city from — whether they're going to New Jersey first or upstate New York, for example — that data is not available because of an amendment introduced by Tiahrt, said Mike Bouchard, a former ATF assistant director for Field Operations. ATF can tell police where most crime guns are traced from, by state. But it does not release information on gun shops or purchasers.
If police chiefs want that, they have to reach out to individual chiefs at other departments and ask.
"It's pretty ridiculous when we have an automated system that will do it for the chiefs," Bouchard said.
Tiahrt said he first proposed limiting access to trace data to make sure the information wasn't available under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act. It was an issue of keeping undercover police, informants and innocent gun buyers and sellers out of the public eye, Tiahrt said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.
Knowing who legally buys guns won't prevent gun violence, the former Republican congressman said.
"We're chasing these wisps of smoke that won't solve the problem," Tiahrt said. "Get to the root cause. Put out the fire. Deal with mental illness. Deal with situational awareness."
Houser said he would prefer the tracing center's operations to be expanded and a center built that would use some technologies to help more easily trace a gun. But until the law changes, his staff will continue removing staples, turning pages right-side-up and taking digital pictures of records.
"Our job is to enforce the laws that are passed to us," Houser said. "What they give us is what we are required to work with."