The trouble with tracing guns


This post has been edited to provide additional clarity.

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives has managed to trace the guns that William Spengler Jr. used in his assault on Webster firefighters, reports the Democrat and Chronicle.

Spengler, who police say fatally shot himself after shooting four Webster firefighters, killing two of them, was a convicted felon barred from owning or possessing guns. But police say he had a Bushmaster .223-caliber rifle — the same make and caliber rifle used in the Newtown shootings — as well as a shotgun and handgun. The ATF will work with state police to follow leads coming out of the trace, the D and C says.

The ATF's turnaround on other gun traces has not always been so quick. A New York Times story published on Christmas day details some of the obstacles the bureau faces when it comes to gun traces.

The agency is statutorily prohibited from developing a computerized registry of gun transactions, the Times says. So instead of punching in a serial number and getting the history of a specific gun, the agency has to do it manually. That means ATF agents have to make a series of phone calls: first to the manufacturer, then a distributor, then the dealer who ultimately sold the gun, says the Times article.

In some cases, they also have to search through boxes of paper records from companies that have closed down, the article says.

The gun lobby sees a national registry of firearms transactions as encroaching on the Second Amendment and members of Congress have sided with the lobby. The time for that sort of thinking is past. Spengler managed to get a cache of weapons, and if somebody broke the law by selling him guns, that person (or persons) should be held accountable. A speedy trace, which in this case the ATF was able to do, is essential to making that determination.

And the results of that trace should be made public. People deserve to know how deadly weapons end up in the wrong hands.