Every year, armed criminals commit hundreds of thousands of violent crimes, sometimes leaving their guns behind and providing potentially significant clues for law enforcement.
That’s where the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) National Tracing Center (NTC) comes into play, a small federal agency that in fiscal 2010 traced nearly 337,000 recovered firearms for U.S. law enforcement agencies and international partners.
Based in West Virginia, the NTC is the country’s only facility that tracks firearms from a manufacturer to a purchaser. The center aids law enforcement in identifying suspects involved in criminal violations, detects firearms trafficking, and tracks the intrastate, interstate and international movement of crime guns.
“Charles has a natural strategic mind on what needs to get done.” – Katrina Masterson
The unique center is headed by ATF Special Agent Charles J. Houser, who is credited with building NTC’s capacity, responding quickly to urgent requests from police and introducing eTrace, an Internet-based system that allows participating law enforcement agencies to submit firearm traces to NTC and receive firearm trace results electronically.
The NTC averages more than 1,200 law enforcement trace requests per day, and successfully identifies the first retail purchaser more than 70 percent of the time. The inability to identify a retail purchaser is usually the result of an invalid firearms description within the initial trace request or cases where the gun was made before 1968 when firearms dealers were not required to maintain records.
There are countless instances where NTC has helped law enforcement in their investigations. In 2007, for example, the center performed a trace on the gun used in the murder of 32 students and faculty at Virginia Tech. In January 2011, the agency responded to an urgent request from police in Tucson, Ariz., to trace the background of the gun involved in the shooting of 19 people, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. In March 2011, NTC helped a Michigan police department link a gun to a suspect in the murder of a public safety officer.
Det. Sgt. Kenneth Berger of the Montgomery County Police Department in Maryland said the “NTC has helped us prosecute and convict a dozen gun traffickers in the last eight or nine years, and has helped us take hundreds of guns off the street.” He said the program has been indispensible to the department’s investigations.
Currently, NTC has 21,250 registered users of its eTrace system, relationships with 3,275 law enforcement agencies and 31 participating foreign countries. During fiscal years 2008-2010, NTC improved its average trace turnaround time for routine trace requests by 50 percent, from 18 days to 9 days, and improved the average urgent trace request from two days to less than one day.
“Charles has a natural strategic mind on what needs to get done,” said Katrina Masterson, an ATF program analyst. “He truly believes in the power of what the NTC can do for law enforcement agencies and for the American people.”
Houser said every request is “treated as critically important,” and emphasized he and his staff “hope that each trace will contribute in some way toward solving a crime.”
“When you halt an illegal source of firearms or help take down a street gang, you can literally help a community overnight,” said Houser.
Arthur Herbert, ATF’s assistant director of the Office of Enforcement Programs and Services, said Houser and his staff face constant demands, and must be “extremely flexible, adaptable and innovative in getting their job done.”
“They’ll often have to shift around resources and workloads on a weekly basis,” Herbert said. “Charles is absolutely instrumental in knowing how to achieve his mission with very limited resources.”
In order to conduct a gun trace, the NTC contacts the manufacturer or importer of the firearm, and follows the trail to the wholesaler, the retailer and the purchaser. If a federal firearm licensee has gone out of business, they must send their paper records to NTC, which then digitizes the documents for use when needed.
Under Houser’s guidance, NTC executed a long-term strategy, in partnership with the Department of State, to promote the use of its tracing services throughout the world in order to track the international flow of illegal guns.
Since 2008, ATF has successfully deployed the use of eTrace in Mexico, Canada, Central America, the Caribbean, as well as Germany, Belgium, Australia and Japan. The NTC is currently working with the State Department to expand eTrace in South America.
This international involvement has led to a substantial number of requests from Mexico, and an opportunity for NTC to help trace the source of guns used by the violent Mexican drug cartels. Houser said this is one means to “disrupt or reduce illegal firearms traffic into Mexico.”
Charlayne Armentrout, the chief of staff for ATF’s Office of Enforcement Programs and Services, said Houser is always seeking to improve the services to the law enforcement community.
“Charles and his entire team are a powerful reminder of what we as public servants are striving to achieve,” said Armentrout.
Charles J. Houser was a 2011 Service to America Medal finalist for the Justice and Law Enforcement category. This award recognizes a federal employee for a significant contribution to the nation in activities related to justice and law enforcement (including civil rights, criminal justice, counterterrorism, and fraud detection and prevention). This medal is accompanied by a $3,000 award.