By federal law, there is no real database of guns kept by the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. This makes it kind of hard for police to figure out whose gun they just found at a crime scene. Jeanne Marie Laskas in GQ wrote the definitive profile of the unbelievable story of How the Cops Actually Trace a Gun. It’s impossible to summarize, but let’s start at the beginning, with a hypothetical murder scene:
So, take that murder we began with. Blood all over the place, cops looking for clues, the booties. They find the gun! What happens next does not involve the wizardry of some supercomputer somewhere. It hinges on a phone call.
That cop with the gun dangling from his pinkie. He dials the tracing center and describes the gun. This is Step One. Let’s say, for example, he reports that he’s got a 9-mm semi-automatic Beretta 92.
On the other end of that phone is someone like the ATF’s Scott Hester. The problem is that the police aren’t firearms experts, so when a detective finds a Beretta 92 handgun at a crime scene, it might not actually be a Beretta.
He’s holding a hefty book, one of his favorite gun encyclopedias, and he would like to tell me about the Beretta 92 and its various doppelgängers. “Now, the real Beretta’s made in Italy,” he says, “but Taurus is made in Brazil. So you have the Beretta 92 and Taurus PT 92. They’re the exact same gun except the safety’s on the slide on one and on the frame of the other.” I want to tell him it doesn’t matter—I was just picking any random gun so he could walk me through the steps about how to trace it—but it occurs to me that his entire career is built on the premise that, yes, it matters. “Now, Beretta was licensing its stuff in Brazil,” he goes on, “but Taurus bought it out, so they bought up Brazil—Beretta’s factory in Brazil—and licensed it as Taurus.” He’s pointing to a page in the book, tapping hard as if the force of the tap will make this any easier to follow.
I love that the only person who seems more frustrated by the situation than the ATF agent is the reporter, who just wants to know what happens when an officer calls about a particular gun. The fact that there are absolutely no easy answers is a theme that occurs again and again in this excellently written story. Laskas eventually manages to move the conversation along. What happens when you identify the model of gun?
“I need the serial number,” Hester says. He lifts his shoulders in an exaggerated shrug and lets out an ominous sigh.
Serial numbers: not so simple. “It gets worse and worse, more and more problematic.”
Serial numbers, it turns out, are tangled clogs of hell. Half the time what the cop is reading you is the patent number, not the serial number, or it’s the ID of the importer, and then you have the “zero versus letter O” problem, the “numeral 1 versus letter l versus letter small-cap I” problem, and then there is the matter of all the guns with duplicate serial numbers (various Chinese guns, certain pre-1968 American guns).
“Okay?” Hester says, in a pleading sort of way. The number one reason gun traces go dry is because the cop got the gun description or the serial number wrong.
I tell him I need to move on. I could never work here. I tell him let’s pretend there’s a miracle and we definitely know we have a Taurus PT 92 and it has a legible serial number.
We may now move on to Step Two.
Sisyphean seems like an understatement, but incredibly, these people have upwards of a 90% success rate in the face of what ought to be insurmountable obstacles. That particular number comes from a wonderful short documentary on this process.