DOJ, Treasury to team on firearms tracking system

President Clinton last week signed a directive instructing the departments of Treasury and Justice to put into place a computer system to track the sale of guns used in crimes and to help prosecute gun traffickers who sell illegal firearms, particularly to minors.

Under the Youth Crime Gun Interdiction Initiative, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms will work with 17 state and local law enforcement agencies on a pilot program called Project Lead. The program, which started in 1993 and recently completed beta testing, aggregates and analyzes certain information to trace guns retrieved from a crime scene to dealers and other individuals associated with the guns. The system has already been useful in tracing the flow of illegal guns from some Southern cities and in creating policies to discourage gun theft.

Although Project Lead was designed to track all guns obtained illegally, Clinton's directive asks ATF to place particular focus on tracing guns that juveniles have used in crimes. The goal is to "disrupt the activities of illegal gun traffickers, especially those who sell firearms to children," according to a White House press release.

"There's very little known about how youths acquire guns," said Joe Vince, chief of ATF's Firearms Enforcement Division. "This will give us and other law enforcement agencies information that we really didn't have before."

Once a gun is retrieved from a crime scene, information on the weapon will be entered into the Project Lead system and sent to ATF's National Tracing Center in Falling Waters, W.Va. Each of the 17 participating cities will be given a Pentium PC that is loaded with the Project Lead software. Data is sent between centers by fax or modem to modem. Eventually, the whole system is expected to be hooked together through the ATF wide-area network.

Project Lead, which was developed in cooperation with Northeastern University in Boston and uses probability theory, statistics, artificial intelligence and other research methods, sends back "indicators" concerning the gun, including the wholesaler, retailer, first point of sale and other information.

Individuals who have been recorded in the system as coming into contact with the gun also are provided, giving agents more clues. Names of individuals who have had contact with a juvenile suspect in a crime also may be supplied.

ATF officials would not elaborate on the process or on the clues Project Lead uses to follow a gun's chain of ownership.

"This is a big help in a city where we have 20,000 guns recovered every year in crimes," said Jack Ballas, the special agent in charge of the ATF field office in New York, one of the cities participating in the pilot program. "It's proven that we can go after the traffickers. What we'll do is take that and focus it on the youth."

The National Institute of Justice at DOJ will use the data collected on the guns to conduct research into youth crimes.

The cities participating in the youth initiative were chosen so that the program had a mix of small and large cities:

Atlanta

Boston

Baltimore

Birmingham, Ala.

Bridgeport, Ala.

Cleveland

Inglewood, Calif.

Jersey City, N.J.

Memphis, Tenn.

Milwaukee

New York

Richmond, Va.

Salinas, Calif.

San Antonio

Seattle

St. Louis

Washington, D.C.

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