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Confiscated firearms leave officers on gun-tracing campaign

Texas ranks fourth among all U.S. states in the number of guns sold that are eventually used in crimes. One of every 50 guns recovered by Texas law enforcement agencies during criminal investigations in 2009 can be traced to Austin. The city ranked ninth among all municipalities in Texas for guns used in crimes, following Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio, among other cities, according to statistics from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The bureau says Texas is the nation’s fourth-largest interstate exporter of guns involved in criminal matters. Pistols and rifles made up nearly 70 percent of the weapons recovered by Texas authorities, 256 weapons out of a total of 16,149 recovered statewide last year. “Texas has really weak gun laws and a number of interstates,” said Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. “The sheer volume of firearms in Texas may also have something to do with it.” The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives estimated that there were about 48,000 firearms dealers nationwide and 3,800 firearms dealers, or nearly 8 percent, in Texas. Casey Watnon, an owner of Tex Guns in South Austin, said ATF agents inspect his store and records at least once a year. “If you’ve been in business for any amount of time at all, you’ll have at least one gun trace,” Watnon said. The ATF’s National Tracing Center began taking gun-tracing requests in 1988 as a result of the Gun Control Act of 1968. The federal law stipulated regulations on owners’ firearms, including requiring dealers to maintain records. The center traces guns for domestic and international law enforcement agencies that need to know the gun’s owner in criminal investigations. The bureau traced more than 343,000 firearms across the world in 2009. Once agents receive a request, they will handwrite records to trace the firearm from the manufacturing company to the retailer, then to the first purchaser. The bureau is not allowed to collect records in a computerized method because of government restrictions on registration databases. The challenge of gun tracing is in carrying out the process, said ATF-Houston Field Division spokeswoman Franceska Perot. “You have to depend on everybody’s records,” Perot said. “The paperwork is maintained by the dealer’s storefront, and the paper trail only gets you to the original purchaser. Sometimes, it can take quite a while.” Gun control advocate Abby Spangler is the founder of protesteasyguns.com. She said guns sold at a gun show — where up to 50 percent of sellers at the show are private and unlicensed — are usually untraceable. Federal law does not require private vendors to perform a background check or keep records on customers. “You can be a felon, have left jail yesterday, walk into a gun show and buy a gun from an unlicensed seller as easily as a candy bar,” she said. “The background check takes a matter of minutes and is all computerized, but private sellers would rather just sell their gun without taking responsibility to protect their fellow Texans.” When unlicensed vendors sell their firearms to another individual, the gun-tracing process reaches a dead end or a partial trace, at best, Spangler said. “We want the gun show loophole to be closed to protect our police, our children and Americans,” Spangler said. But gun tracing allows the gun-control lobby to demonize a firearms dealer, said Dave Workman, spokesman for the Second Amendment Foundation, a pro-gun rights group. “Once a firearm leaves a dealer’s building, he’s not responsible for what the user does with it,” Workman said. “People blame dealers for catering to the criminal market, but just to say that a particular gun dealer is an outlawed gun dealer is not really fair.”