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Tracing Guns' Histories May Give Police Edge

By Henry Pierson Curtis | Sentinel Staff Writer

June 30, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved. 

Scharlene Ahmed writes history one gun at a time.

The Orlando Police Department property clerk spends 10 hours a week tracing every handgun, rifle and shotgun confiscated in the city.

"It's tedious," Ahmed said. "But it's going to be a benefit even if it solves one crime."

For the first time, Ahmed and her colleagues at law-enforcement agencies throughout Central Florida are working together to learn how criminals obtain weapons.

They log 72 pieces of information about every confiscated gun into a computer program created by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Entering all that takes from five minutes to more than three hours, depending on the circumstances of each case.

Routine traces take up to two weeks to identify what gun shop sold the weapon and the name and address of the buyer.

In its early stages, the database identifies what street cops already know -- hot spots for violent crimes.

Later, as more guns are entered, the database can map the who, what, where and when of gun crimes. ATF agents say those are investigative leads that can help reduce illegal gun sales to felons, underage buyers and gun traffickers.

"Police departments, after a year of mapping these guns, will possibly start to see trends developing," said Agent Mike Hegerfeld, head of ATF's Orlando office. "They can come to us and say, 'Hey, we thought you'd like to know there's a guy who's sold four or five guns that have ended up in the hands of criminals.' "

Once a suspect is identified, it is ATF's job to investigate if a federal gun law has been broken.

The most commonly broken gun law involves out-of-state residents who claim Florida residency to buy guns from gun shops in the Orlando area. Many of those buyers turn out to be working for gun traffickers arming drug gangs in Puerto Rico, according to federal court records.

Also common are "straw purchases" by Floridians without criminal records who buy guns intending to resell or give them to anyone prohibited by law from owning a firearm.

State prisoner Alvin Johnson typifies the sort of criminal who authorities want to prevent from owning another gun.

Early last year, Johnson, 38, of Apopka dressed in black, donned gloves and armed himself with several firearms. He had served two prison sentences for violent crimes so he was prohibited from owning a gun.

Nonetheless, he was ready for a firefight when he tried to kick his way into the home of an Orange County woman late at night, court records show.

The terrified woman escaped. Johnson is now serving three years for possession of a weapon by a convicted felon.

Traces on the guns Orange County deputy sheriffs seized from Johnson failed to provide clues to how he obtained them. One pistol was bought in 1983 in Alabama. His second pistol was sold in Virginia before a 1968 law required serial numbers on all firearms. A shotgun he carried could not be traced.

Had the guns been traced to a buyer, investigators would have tried to track how the guns reached Johnson, according to interviews.

Agencies as small as the Altamonte Springs Police Department, which seizes about 50 guns a year, now trace regularly along with Central Florida's largest agencies.

"We just want to get some of the guns off the street," said Dee Teminsky, senior crime-scene analyst for the Altamonte Springs Police Department.

So far, 13 local agencies have received computer training in how to use ATF's Electronic Trace Support System.

The largest of those agencies, the Orange County Sheriff's Office, confiscated about 1,300 guns in 2002. It entered 278 of them into the system last year but intends to log all guns in the future.

The Seminole County Sheriff's Office confiscates up to 400 guns a year.

"We're still working out the kinks and bugs in the system," said Forensics Services supervisor Ann Mallory. "I'd say we'll be up and running within two weeks."

Tracking guns would seem to be routine police work, but it borders on a daring, revolutionary act in Florida.

The Sunshine State has championed residents' Second Amendment right "to keep and bear arms" for so long that any attempt to identify or regulate gun owners generates widespread controversy.

Two years ago, the state's top cop bowed to pressure from the National Rifle Association and agreed to remove guns from a planned database of stolen property.

The decision by Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Tim Moore angered sheriffs and police chiefs.

By coincidence, ATF offered its tracing program the same year and many of those same sheriffs and police officials agreed to join.

Traces take about two weeks. In special cases, such as murders, they can be done in days.

Few of the findings have produced surprises.

"It tends to go along the southwest side of our town," Orlando Police Officer April Brunner said of gun recoveries in high-crime neighborhoods she has plotted as a member of the ATF gun task force.

But one of the largest clusters turned up in Colonialtown, a neighborhood with a low-crime reputation. About 10 guns were seized there in 2002 along State Road 50, east of Mills Avenue.

Sitting at her Compaq computer in Orlando police headquarters, Ahmed, the police clerk, sets aside a day each week to log guns. Before pulling up ATF's program, she takes a look at a photograph of her two children.

"I have to be totally focused," said Ahmed, who volunteered for the job. "I have to feel like I'm in that zone so nothing gets skipped because it's a very important process."

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