Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

September 16, 2013

Virginia is test state for gun data program

Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. — A test project in Virginia is allowing law enforcement agencies to share information on guns used in crimes.

The program gives police instant access to a database that can help them link suspects to guns in a criminal investigation. It also could help detect potential gun traffickers and straw purchasers, and identify patterns of weapon trafficking.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports 25 law enforcement agencies in Virginia have signed agreements to share gun crime data since the program was launched in July.

The program is an expansion of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ Electronic Tracing System based in Martinsburg, W.Va.

ATF Special Agent April Carroll says authorities plan to expand the program to other states. She said Illinois and Maryland are next in line.

Carroll said police agencies must share their data in order to receive information in return.

“It’s basically a pay-to-play system,” Carroll said. “If you opt in, you have access to all the other pool of data for all the other agencies that have also chosen to opt in. So it’s reciprocal, and the data is immediately available and it’s instantaneous sharing.”

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.

Under the Virginia program, police agencies can share their information directly and electronically without ATF’s involvement.

“They are making the choice and sharing it themselves,” Carroll said. “Essentially, we just turn on the system.”

The program’s state rollout was coordinated by the ATF with the Virginia State Police.

“I feel confident that law enforcement in Virginia will team together and share information — the same way we share criminal history stuff and intelligence information and everything else,” said state police Lt. Col. Robert Kemmler.

Virginia’s system is limited to in-state use for now. Once other states go online, participating law enforcement agencies could collectively share trace information beyond state borders.

“In the past, if a firearm was trafficked from Chesterfield into the city of Richmond, the city of Richmond and Chesterfield County may not know that that firearm had been trafficked from one jurisdiction to the next,” said Melissa Merola, resident agent in charge of the ATF’s central Virginia office. “So by the new opt-in (provision) that we share through our eTracing system, local agencies and state agencies can make choices and agree to share the data with one another. And it’s a free resource to every agency.”

Last year the ATF’s National Tracing Center in Martinsburg traced about 344,000 guns for 6,000 different law enforcement agencies.