Here's how the feds trace guns when solving crimes

It’s been four months since the Highland Park parade shooting took place on the Fourth of July.

One aspect that stands out about the case is how quickly agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were able to trace the weapon the gunman used, which lead to his arrest just hours later that same day.

In a FOX 32 special report, Anthony Ponce looks at how the gun tracing process works and how it’s changing.

When the mass shooting happened in north suburban Chicago just a few months ago, first responders weren’t the only ones scrambling to find the gunman.


Even though it was a holiday, a number of other federal employees hundreds of miles away were called in to the ATF's National Tracing Center to help find out who bought the gun found along the Highland Park parade route.

They use a process heavily based on paper and a few other methods that may seem a little more old-fashioned.

"We do think it works well. As evidenced by the speed in which we were able to trace the firearm in the Highland Park parade shooting. Provided dealers keep records, it is easy to trace firearms," said Kristen de Tineo, a special agent who oversees the ATF's Chicago office.

De Tineo talked about how law enforcement tracks down who is the trigger puller in a gun crime.

"Essentially that’s the rule. That we are not allowed to keep a database of gun purchasers. So therefore, it is a long process to do it this way. Manually," de Tineo said.  

That’s despite the ATF having the only center in the world with the authority to trace firearms.

In many other cases, when the paper trail isn’t complete or may be hard to read, it takes much longer to find out who the current owner of a gun is.

"In 2021, the ATF National Tracing Center traced approximately 500,000 crime guns," de Tineo said. "That’s a lot of firearms used in crimes in this country."

The ATF says tracing a gun on paper doesn’t always tell you the whole story about who used it when a crime was committed.

Highland Park was the exception, not the rule.

"Because a lot of times guns change hands a lot. When you trace that gun and it comes back to an original purchaser, a lot of times that’s not going to be the person that ended up with the gun," said Matthew Corley, acting group supervisor for the ATF's Chicago Crime Gun Intelligence Center.

That's where crime gun intelligence comes in.

"It's a concept of bringing all agencies together to share and incorporate information together to try and combat violent crime," Corley said. "It involves multiple different tools we utilize in the intelligence gathering aspect of it."

Corley says crime gun intelligence helps law enforcement fight violent crime by helping them find the people who are actually not just providing guns but people who are actually pulling the trigger.

Alvin Soto is the coordinator of the Chicago ATF's ballistics testing site located at the Aurora Police Department. Part of his job is to literally eyeball the distinct imprint each gun leaves on a shell casing to see if it matches other shell casings already entered into the system to see if there is a match.

Again, it's done by hand, not by computer.

"The computer puts them [images] in order of higher probability and the human eye has to take a look and match it," Soto said.

Finding matching imprints on shell casings can show a link between shootings in the Chicago area or across the country, to show that the same gun was used in both of them.

With ballistics testing being done on site at the Aurora Police Department, once a shell casing is entered into the system, Soto can tell an officer in minutes, instead of months, if there is a match.

Crime gun intelligence also includes analyzing social media and using audio detection technology, like ShotSpotter, to get the full story of who bought a gun and who actually used it in a crime.

Put all that together and it changes the game.

"I think speed is the number one thing that's really changed the investigative process for us. Because we're getting this stuff back same day," said Special Operations Group Lt. Greg Spayth.

Spayth says a pile of shell casings is often all you have to start with when investigating a gun crime.

"The longer you wait on any case, things go cold - facts. You lose witnesses, so speed is key. The faster we can see who's shooting what gun or what gang is committing certain crimes, the faster we can find where the gun originated from. Those are leads we can follow up on," Spayth said.