Unlike the fictional world of television police dramas, federal law bars the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives from keeping track of guns, says the Associated Press. The only time the government can track the history of a gun, including its first buyer and seller, is after it's used in a crime. Tracing a gun is a decidedly low-tech process. "It's not CSI and it's not a sophisticated computer system," said Charles Houser, who runs the ATF's National Tracing Center in Martinsburg, W. Va.
In about 30 percent of cases, a dealer has gone out of business and ATF tracers are left to sort through potentially thousands of out-of-business records. The records are stored as digital pictures that can only be searched one image at a time. Two shifts of contractors spend their days taking staples out of papers, sorting through thousands of pages and scanning or taking pictures of the records. Last year the center traced 344,000 guns for 6,000 different law enforcement agencies. Houser has a success rate of about 90 percent if enough information is provided. "It's a factory for the production of investigative leads," Houser said of the tracing center.