Guns have had their place in the national headlines recently, whether it’s a mass shooting or other violent crime, or the latest push to either strengthen or weaken the rights of gun owners in response to such crimes.
In Aiken County, firearms have been used to carry out some heinous – and, unfortunately, very recent – crimes, including the shooting deaths of two police officers, a quadruple homicide and a murder-suicide.
But, what happens to these weapons after they are recovered from the scene, if they’re recovered at all? How is the source of the weapon determined? What becomes of a weapon used in a crime after the justice system has run its course?
From the scene of the crime
According to Sgt. Jake Mahoney, a spokesman for the Aiken Department of Public Safety, weapons recovered from crime scenes or suspects are seized as evidence. The weapons then are sent to either the crime lab at the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division or to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives for forensic testing and examination.
“Data from every weapon seized is electronically submitted to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to determine the weapon’s origin and previous owners,” Mahoney said.
According to a report by ATF, the agency recovered and traced 3,110 firearms in South Carolina in 2011, the latest year available. Those weapons included 1,750 pistols, 649 revolvers, 354 shotguns, 332 rifles and one machine gun.
According to ATF, tracing weapons can link a suspect to a firearm in a criminal investigation and identify potential traffickers, and also can aid officers in developing potential witnesses, determining the source of a weapon used in a crime or prove ownership of a weapon.
“Based on the information that we’ve garnered from that, it may actually lead to an additional investigation or a continuation of the investigation,” Mahoney said.
‘It’s not CSI’
The process of tracing a firearm, which is provided by ATF at no cost to local agencies, is one of “focused research,” according to the agency’s Firearms Tracing Guide. It employs records that federally licensed firearms dealers are required to keep to determine the origin of a weapon, and the process ends when the first retail purchaser of a firearm is identified.
The process is antiquated and low-tech, however, and involves a lengthy paper trail.
“It’s not CSI, and it’s not a sophisticated computer system,” Charles Houser, who runs ATF’s National Tracing Center in Martinsburg, W. Va., told the Associated Press.
Once a weapon has been recovered, a law enforcement agency reports the gun’s make, model and serial number to ATF, which then contacts the gun’s manufacturer. The manufacturer can provide authorities with the wholesaler they used, that then connects them to the retailer that sold the weapon.
Firearms manufacturers, importers, wholesalers and retail dealers in the U.S. and abroad cooperate with agents by providing specific information on the manufacture, importation or sale of firearms.
To identify the first purchaser of a weapon, a retailer checks the federal Form 4473, the required background check form that all prospective gun purchasers must complete to buy a gun from a federally licensed dealer. From this form, a retailer can provide the purchaser’s identification information to the local law enforcement agency.
Once the identity of the first purchaser has been obtained, ATF and local law enforcement can examine the relationship of the buyer to the crime and identify potential links, if any, according to the report.
If a federally licensed firearms dealer goes out of business, they must send their firearms transactions records to the National Tracing Center, which receives an average of 1.2 million out-of-business records per month.
Rarely does a trace indicate a weapon is stolen, according to the tracing guide. The agency that recovers the weapon would have to search the gun file in the National Crime Information Center system to determine that.
A firearm cannot be traced without a serial number, which often is partially or completely obliterated; however, ATF provides expertise in serialization and other firearms identification forensics to help identify a firearm of which the serial number has been destroyed or altered.
According to the trace report data, more than half of the guns traced by ATF in South Carolina in 2011 – 1,671 weapons – were purchased in the state. A large number of weapons end up in the hands of criminals through “straw purchases,” in which a person buys a gun for someone who is prohibited by law from possessing one, or for someone who does not want their name associated with a transaction.
After the gavel drops
Sgt. Jason Feemster, of the Aiken County Sheriff’s Office, said any firearms collected as evidence and used in court are kept, depending on how the case is adjudicated.
“Once the case has been adjudicated by a guilty plea, law enforcement must retain the weapon for seven years,” he said. “If the sentence of the defendant involving the case is completed before the seven years, or he dies while incarcerated, it will be returned to the owner if it is not illegal (for the owner) to possess.”
In some cases, the Sheriff’s Office obtains firearms as found property or when gun owners no longer want them.
“In these cases, if the firearms are legal and the weapons are clear through the court, the Sheriff’s Office will sell them in ‘lots,’” Feemster said, adding that this has been done in 2011 and 2012. “Gun dealers who possess a federal firearms license bid on the weapons, which are sold in a lot to the highest bidder.” That money is then put into a general fund for the Sheriff’s Office to purchase equipment.
Feemster said in cases where firearms are illegal to possess, such as having obliterated serial numbers or illegal modifications, those firearms are destroyed.