News & CultureInside the Federal Bureau Of Way Too Many Guns
There's no telling how many guns we have in America—and when one gets used in a crime, no way for the cops to connect it to its owner. The only place the police can turn for help is a Kafkaesque agency in West Virginia, where, thanks to the gun lobby, computers are illegal and detective work is absurdly antiquated. On purpose. Thing is, the geniuses who work there are quietly inventing ways to do the impossible.
Say there's a murder. Blood everywhere, a dead guy on the floor. The cops come in with their yellow tape, chalk line, the little booties, cameras, swabs, the fingerprint dust. One of them finds a gun on the floor. The gun! He lifts it with his pinkie, examines it, takes note of the serial number. Back at the station, they run a trace on the gun. A name pops up. It's the wife! Or: It's the business partner! It's somebody's gun, and this is so exciting because now they know who did it.
Except—no. You are watching too much TV. It doesn't work like that.
“Think,” says Charlie Houser, a federal agent with the ATF. We're in his office, a corner, and he's got a whiteboard behind him where he's splashed diagrams, charts, numbers.
The cops run a trace on a gun? What does that even mean? A name pops up? From where? There's some master list somewhere? Like, for all the guns all over the world, there's a master list that started with the No. 1 (when? World War I? Civil War? Russian Revolution? when?), and in the year 2016 we are now up to No. 14 gazillion whatever, and every single one of those serial numbers has a gun owner's name attached to it on some giant list somewhere (where?), which, thank God, a big computer is keeping track of?
“People don't think,” Charlie tells me. He's a trim guy, 51, full lips and a thin goatee, and he likes to wear three-piece suits. They fit loose, so the overall effect is awkward innocence, like an eighth grader headed to his first formal. “ I get e-mails even from police saying, ‘Can you type in the serial number and tell me who the gun is registered to?’ Every week. They think it's like a VIN number on a car. Even police. Police from everywhere. ‘Hey, can you guys hurry up and type that number in?’ ”
“It's a shoestring budget. It's a bunch of friggin' boxes. All half-ass records.”
So here's a news flash, from Charlie: “We ain't got a registration system. Ain't nobody registering no damn guns.”
There is no national database of guns. We have no centralized record of who owns all the firearms we so vigorously debate, no hard data regarding how many people own them, how many of them are bought or sold, or how many even exist.
What we have instead is Charlie.
“Can I go smoke a cigarette while we discuss it?”
Anytime a cop in any jurisdiction in America wants to connect a gun to its owner, the request for help ends up here, at the National Tracing Center, in a low, flat, boring building that belies its past as an IRS facility, just off state highway 9 in Martinsburg, West Virginia, in the eastern panhandle of the state, a town of some 17,000 people, a Walmart, a JCPenney, and various dollar stores sucking the life out of a quaint redbrick downtown. On any given day, agents here are running about 1,500 traces; they do about 370,000 a year.
“It's a shoestring budget,” says Charlie, who runs the center. “It's not 10,000 agents and a big sophisticated place. It's a bunch of friggin' boxes. All half-ass records. We have about 50 ATF employees. And all the rest are basically the ladies. The ladies that live in West Virginia—and they got a job. There's a huge amount of labor being put into looking through microfilm.”
I want to ask about the microfilm—microfilm?—but it's hard to get a word in. He's already gone three rounds on the whiteboard, scribbling, erasing, illustrating some of the finer points of gun tracing, of which there are many, in large part due to the limitations imposed upon this place. For example, no computer. The National Tracing Center is not allowed to have centralized computer data.
“That's the big no-no,” says Charlie.
That's been a federal law, thanks to the NRA, since 1986: No searchable database of America's gun owners. So people here have to use paper, sort through enormous stacks of forms and record books that gun stores are required to keep and to eventually turn over to the feds when requested. It's kind of like a library in the old days—but without the card catalog. They can use pictures of paper, like microfilm (they recently got the go-ahead to convert the microfilm to PDFs), as long as the pictures of paper are not searchable. You have to flip through and read. No searching by gun owner. No searching by name.
“Okay?” Charlie's tapping a box of Winston Reds. His smile is impish, like he's daring you to say what needs to be said: This is a fucking nightmare.
“You want to see the loading dock?” We head down a corridor lined with boxes. Every corridor in the whole place is lined with boxes, boxes up to the eyeballs. In the loading dock, there's a forklift beeping, bringing in more boxes. “You go, ‘Whoa!’ ” he says. “Okay? Yeah, but a million a month?” Almost 2 million new gun records every month he has to figure out what to do with. Almost 2 million slips of paper that record the sale of a gun—who bought it and where—like a glorified receipt. If you take pictures of the gun records, you can save space. “Two million images! You know, it's 2 million photo shots. I've got to have at least seven machines running 16 hours a day, or otherwise, right? I fall behind. And to fall behind means that instead of 5,000 boxes in process, there's maybe 5,500 tomorrow, you know?
“These were Hurricane Katrina,” he says, leaning against a stack. “They were all submerged. They came in wet. And then we dried them in the parking lot. When they got dry enough, the ladies ran them into the imager.
“Do you want to see the imagers? I'll show you. Imaging is like running a copy machine. So, like, if there's staples? So what these ladies along here do, from this wall to this wall, from six in the morning until midnight…staples.”
It's hard to tell if he's complaining, or bragging.
“All this, everywhere, all these hallways, the boxes,” he says. “We've been as high as 15,000 boxes backlogged. When we go over 10,000, the General Services Administration dudes are walking around going, ‘We'll collapse the floor.’
“And then Denise says—did you meet Denise? Denise says, ‘Let's get some shipping containers! They're like 70 bucks a month to rent.’ So we put shipping containers out in the parking lot here.” He pushes open a heavy metal door and there they are, three red, one orange, and one blue, pinged with rust, sitting on the hot asphalt with weeds popping through. “See, now we fill these up. Um…” He yanks the latch on the orange one, bends his knees as he heaves open the door. Inside it's the same as the corridors: boxes. “Maybe 50 times a day a trace will come in for gun records in those boxes. Right? So, 50 times today somebody will be out here hand-searching boxes because we don't have them imaged yet.
“You want to go see the microfilm archive?”
How We Got Into This Mess
But why shouldn't a gun be like a car—or food? If you need to know the history, you call a number and somebody's got the information. If we have an E. coli outbreak, we don't have much trouble getting to the offending bags of lettuce.
Guns don't work that way.
The last time Congress seriously addressed the notion of creating a way to keep track of America's guns was 1968. Back then, assassination was the thing. First President Kennedy, then Martin Luther King Jr., then Robert Kennedy. The outcry was nearly identical to the one we have now: too many guns, too few regulations, too many crazy people shooting with abandon.
The Gun Control Act of 1968 was an attempt to impose order. It set up the Federal Firearms License (FFL) system; gun stores would have to become licensed and they would have to follow certain rules. Felons, illegal immigrants, and crazy people would be prohibited from buying guns. People would have to sign a document, Federal Form 4473, also called the Firearms Transaction Record, swearing that they were none of these things. (Background checks to prove you weren't didn't come until 1993.)
President Lyndon Johnson, who signed the act into law, was at once jubilant and depressed. He had wanted the law to establish a national gun registry, too, but Congress wouldn't agree to that part. “If the criminal with a gun is to be tracked down quickly, then we must have registration in this country,” Johnson said. “The voices that blocked these safeguards were not the voices of an aroused nation. They were the voices of a powerful lobby, a gun lobby, that has prevailed for the moment in an election year.”
It was the same conversation we're still having—except now mass shootings are the thing. We average at least one a month. Since 1968, more Americans have died from gunfire than have died in all our wars put together. In 2014: 33,599.
Who's doing all the shooting and where are they getting all those guns and how many do they have and can't we get control over this clusterfuck? Wouldn't a national gun registry give us a tool to stop some of the killing?
No, says the gun lobby. It would give the government a tool to confiscate our guns. The idea of a gun registry is the great fever dream that lies at the heart of gun-control conspiracy theories: Government evildoers are going to attack us any day now. We have to be ready. (And you don't give the enemy an inventory of all your weapons!)
The Gun Control Act was an abomination, from the gun-lobby point of view. Especially Form 4473, which they considered all but radioactive. Even though there wasn't a registry, there was suddenly a document that existed, a piece of paper linking a gun to the name of its owner. Surely the Second Amendment was thus doomed.
In 1984, Form 4473 even showed up in a movie, Red Dawn. Soviet paratroopers invaded Colorado, and they went on a search for gun owners by getting their hands on a bunch of 4473s. “I'll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands,” was a popular NRA bumper sticker at the time and a variant was featured prominently in the movie.
It would be reasonable to assume, as many people do, that since 4473 is a federal form, the feds have them all locked up somewhere safe, but they don't. They are kept at the store that sold the gun; only when the retailer goes out of business do the gun records come here to the tracing center, which accounts for Charlie's box problem. Those are just the out-of-business records he's dealing with in the corridors and the shipping containers in the parking lot.
“Those are just the out-of-business records,” repeats Charlie, for emphasis.
The vast majority of the gun records linking a gun to its owner are kept back at the various licensed dealers, the Walmarts, Bob's Gun Shops, and Guns R Us stores dotting America's landscape.
We have more gun retailers in America than we do supermarkets, more than 55,000 of them. We're talking nearly four times the number of McDonald's. Nobody knows how many guns that equals, but in 2013, U.S. gun manufacturers rolled out 10,844,792 guns, and we imported an additional 5,539,539. The numbers were equally astounding the year before, and the year before that, and the year before that.
By law, the system must remain intricate, thorny, and all but impenetrable.
Matching a firearm to a person—tracing a gun—is therefore a needle-in-a-haystack proposition that depends on Form 4473. To the people at the tracing center, locating that document is the whole object of the game. It's the holy grail. The form has the gun purchaser's signature on it, his or her address, place and date of birth, height, weight, gender, ethnicity, race, and, sometimes, Social Security number (“Optional, but will help prevent misidentification,” says box 8).
It's a jackpot of information that could help solve a murder case, or exonerate an innocent guy on death row, or, as happens frequently, open unexpected investigative leads.
Last December two gunmen opened fire at a holiday office party in San Bernardino, California, killing 14 people. Remember: Nobody knew who these maniacs were or why they were doing this. After a shoot-out, the cops recovered a Smith & Wesson handgun, a Llama handgun, a Smith & Wesson M&P assault rifle, and a DPMS Panther Arms assault rifle. At the National Tracing Center, they figured out where the guns came from, as well as who bought them—the slain assailants. Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, had purchased the handguns legally between three and eight years previously at Annie's Get Your Gun, an FFL in Corona, California. Farook and Malik were discovered to have posted an oath of allegiance to the Islamic State on Facebook just before the attack began. But what about the assault rifles—they were still a mystery. Turned out a former neighbor, Enrique Marquez, bought those during the same time period. The FBI picked up Marquez, who is alleged to have been plotting attacks with Farook at Riverside City College and on state highway 91 as early as 2011. Remember: We didn't know too much about radicalized homegrown jihadists until then.
It was a trace just like any other trace that happens here in Martinsburg. The ATF completed it within a few hours, despite a system that, according to federal law, must remain intricate, thorny, and all but impenetrable.
How to Trace a Gun
So, take that murder we began with. Blood all over the place, cops looking for clues, the booties. They find the gun! What happens next does not involve the wizardry of some supercomputer somewhere. It hinges on a phone call.
That cop with the gun dangling from his pinkie. He dials the tracing center and describes the gun. This is Step One. Let's say, for example, he reports that he's got a 9-mm semi-automatic Beretta 92.
This would seem to be a straightforward matter. It's not. Cops are bad at describing guns. This is because many guns look alike and the nuances can be fantastically minute and critical to a successful trace.
“You don't think of Egypt making pistols, but they make a knockoff of the Beretta,” ATF specialist Scott Hester tells me. He's a slim guy with a ruddy complexion in a black ATF polo shirt. He's been tracing guns for a decade. We're in his cubicle, and I can't help but marvel at all the horrible newspaper clippings he's got hanging everywhere, including one on the San Bernardino case, for which he and his team won an award. “I did Tucson. Pick a shooting. Pick a gun crime,” he tells me. “Pick whatever you want—a firearm event that's any type—and one of us here has done it. That's just the nature of what we do. Triple homicide here. Six killed here. Triple homicide there. Murder here. Boston Marathon there. I mean…”
He's holding a hefty book, one of his favorite gun encyclopedias, and he would like to tell me about the Beretta 92 and its various doppelgängers. “Now, the real Beretta's made in Italy,” he says, “but Taurus is made in Brazil. So you have the Beretta 92 and Taurus PT 92. They're the exact same gun except the safety's on the slide on one and on the frame of the other.” I want to tell him it doesn't matter—I was just picking any random gun so he could walk me through the steps about how to trace it—but it occurs to me that his entire career is built on the premise that, yes, it matters. “Now, Beretta was licensing its stuff in Brazil,” he goes on, “but Taurus bought it out, so they bought up Brazil—Beretta's factory in Brazil—and licensed it as Taurus.” He's pointing to a page in the book, tapping hard as if the force of the tap will make this any easier to follow.
“Now, they're almost identical guns,” he says proudly, like a math professor who just reached the most obviously correct answer, “but from different parts of the planet!”
It takes a guy working here for a decade to know stuff like this. The can-do attitude is comforting. It's encouraging to know people here are so wildly invested in conquering this chaos.
“Newtown was traumatic. People were bawling and tracing and bawling.”
So, okay, not a Beretta 92, and not an Egyptian knockoff, but a Taurus PT 92 made in Beretta's factory in Brazil. Let's say that's our gun. What's the next step in tracing it back to its original purchaser?
“I need the serial number,” Hester says. He lifts his shoulders in an exaggerated shrug and lets out an ominous sigh.
Serial numbers: not so simple. “It gets worse and worse, more and more problematic.”
Serial numbers, it turns out, are tangled clogs of hell. Half the time what the cop is reading you is the patent number, not the serial number, or it's the ID of the importer, and then you have the “zero versus letter O” problem, the “numeral 1 versus letter l versus letter small-cap I” problem, and then there is the matter of all the guns with duplicate serial numbers (various Chinese guns, certain pre-1968 American guns).
“Okay?” Hester says, in a pleading sort of way. The number one reason gun traces go dry is because the cop got the gun description or the serial number wrong.
I tell him I need to move on. I could never work here. I tell him let's pretend there's a miracle and we definitely know we have a Taurus PT 92 and it has a legible serial number.
We may now move on to Step Two.
Step Two: Hester calls the manufacturer (if it's a U.S.-made gun) or the importer (for foreign-made guns). He wants to know which wholesaler the gunmaker sold the weapon to. Basically you say, “Hey, who did you sell this gun to?”
Gun importers are licensed by the ATF, and they have to keep records of acquisitions and sales. So the importer has to go through all his gun records and find that particular Taurus PT 92 with that particular serial number, find what batch it was in, and tell you what wholesaler it went to.
Step Three: You call the wholesaler and say, “Who did you sell it to?”
The wholesaler, who also has to keep such records, goes through the same rigmarole the importer or manufacturer did, and he gives you the name of the gun store that ordered it from him. Let's say it was Walmart.
Step Four: This could go one of two ways.
If the Walmart is still in business, you call it. The actual store. Not corporate headquarters, or some warehouse, but the actual Walmart in Omaha or Miami or Wheeling. You call that store and you say, “To whom did you sell this Taurus PT 92 with this particular serial number on it?” By law, every gun dealer in America has to keep a “bound book” or an “orderly arrangement of loose-leaf pages” (some have been known to use toilet paper in protest) to record every firearm's manufacturer or importer, model, serial number, type, caliber or gauge, date received, date of sale. This record corresponds to the store's stack of 4473s, which some clerk has to go dig through in order to read you the information from the form. Or he can fax it.
Congratulations. You have found your gun owner. “I get a sense of ‘Yeah, I got you, pal,’ ” Hester tells me, about what it feels like to find just the right 4473. It can take people at the tracing center 70 phone calls on one trace alone. There are rows and rows of cubicles filled with ladies on phones doing the calling, but not everything happens by phone. They do have some Internet in the building: e-Trace is a system that allows cops to submit requests for gun traces and get the results back by computer, if they're subscribers. They can also mail the requests in. Either way, once you have found the name of the gun owner, you get back to the cop who initiated the trace.
Happiness Is a Found Gun
Linking a killer to his gun is preposterously hard. On purpose. — Rachel Wilkonson
Cops nab a gun. Now what?
Police contact the tracing center and describe the gun they've got: the make, the model, etc.
Tracers call the gunmaker…
And have the manufacturer (say, Glock or Smith & Wesson) dig up the retailer they sold it to.
Then find the gun store…
Tracers phone Walmart (or wherever), and there, a guy hunts down a form signed by the gun buyer.
But the gun store closed!
A shuttered retailer's forms go to the tracing center (almost 2 million monthly).
So tracers comb their files
To find the gun owner, they hunt by hand for the form he signed back when he first bought the gun.
“And then I say, ‘Okay, your trace is done; I got the buyer,’ ” Hester tells me. “And they say, ‘Oh, who is it?’ ” Maybe it's one of the suspects. “And he'll say, ‘Are you sure?’ And I'll say, ‘I've got this form in my hand here. I'm looking at the form. I can tell you for a fact right now the purchaser and possessor are the same person.’ And without exception, these guys are like, ‘Oh, man, you're a rock star. You're a god. Man, you rule.’ ”
But hang on, because maybe you didn't get so lucky. Maybe you're working on a trace, and it turns out that the Walmart that sold the gun was one of those old cruddy Walmarts that closed down in the 1990s. This leads you back, as almost everything does, to Charlie's boxes.
Now you go dig.
All the out-of-business records that come in here—2 million last month—are eventually imaged and organized according to the store that sent them. It might be 50,000 Form 4473s from one Dick's Sporting Goods in some suburb of Cleveland. So, say you need to find one particular 4473 from that store. “We go through them,” Charlie tells me. “Just like photographs from your Christmas party, and we look through every one. Until we find it.”
More than 30 percent of all traces lead investigators here, hand-searching through boxes, or going frame by frame on microfilm readers, looking for a 4473 from Mom and Pop Gun Shop long after Mom and Pop closed up shop.
“It's in here somewhere,” Linda Mills tells me. I meet her in the “roll room,” a cavern of beige drawers you pull out and pick among—40,000 rolls of microfilm in all, each with about 10,000 frames on it. “I'll find it,” says Mills. She's in her 70s and due for retirement and wears her white hair long and down her back. She's looking for the record of a person who bought a Remington 870 12-gauge shotgun that was sold by a now defunct dealer in Denver. She thinks she picked the right roll, so she carries it back to her desk, where the lights are as dim as a closet's, and where a microfilm reader circa 1973 is planted. Here she will sit, as she has for the past 18 years, turning a dial right while countless images zoom past.
“I'm looking for a W,” she says. The images are the color of asphalt, and the writing on them looks like tiny pebbles, and they whiz by so fast, I begin to get actual car sickness. I ask her how she can possibly read anything moving this fast.
“I'm looking for a W,” she says, picking up a magnifying glass and leaning in toward the upper left of the screen. She's hunting for the first letter of a 15-character code atop the defunct dealer's record books. “Sometimes they'll just put the numbers, they won't put the alphabet.” Now she's squinting, one eye closed, the machine whirring, the images zooming. “We had 8's. We're still in the 9's. See, now it went on to a different gun again…. But if we get past—wait!”
Abruptly, she hits the “stop” button. “See, here's W's.”
Information Is Power
Sixty-five of the time, workers at the tracing center are able to successfully trace a gun used in a crime back to the original purchaser. A routine trace takes about a week, but they can turn an “urgent” around in 24 hours. The San Bernardino case was an urgent. The Boston Marathon bomber case was an urgent. Gabby Giffords: urgent. Charleston. Aurora. Fort Hood. Columbine. Washington Navy Yard. Sikh temple. Just figure every crime you ever watched endless horrifying footage of on TV involved somebody here in Martinsburg searching through a rat's nest of records and then experiencing a moment of jubilance upon seeing that, yes, this is it, here is the 4473 that belongs to that lunatic. (Or his mother. Or his uncle. Or the pawnshop dealer who sold it to someone else. Tracing the gun beyond the initial point of purchase is on the cops.)
This is the maddening, inefficient way gun tracing works, and there is no effort afoot to make it work any better. For all the talking we do about imposing new limits on assault weapons, or stronger background checks, nobody talks about fixing the way we keep track—or don't keep track—of where all the guns are.
On just one of the days I visited the tracing center, there were 5,000 trace requests in the hopper awaiting attention. There would be about a thousand more the next day.
In 2013, recognizing how important tracing is for solving crimes, and for providing intelligence regarding patterns of illegal gun trafficking, President Obama asked for more of it: He signed a memorandum demanding that all firearms recovered in the course of criminal investigations be traced.
But Congress didn't give Charlie any funds, or manpower, to accommodate an influx. In fact, his budget has been flat since 2005. What Charlie got from Congress is the same thing he always gets: scrutiny. “If a stick drops in the road, we're getting some pressure,” he tells me. The idea—which is forcefully pushed by the gun lobby and implanted in the heads of lawmakers at the behest of the NRA—is to make sure Charlie is not using his power to access America's 4473s to secretly create a searchable database.
There is no other place in America where technological advances are against the law. Unless you count the Amish. Even if a gun store that has gone out of business hands over records that it had kept on computer files, Charlie can't use them. He has to have the files printed out, and then the ladies take pictures of them and store them that way. Anything that allows people to search by name is verboten.
To be clear: Charlie doesn't want names. “You got a dead guy in Chicago, right? So what name did you want me to look for?” he points out. “I ain't got a damn clue! Nobody else does, either. I don't need to be able to search by the name. If I knew the name, I wouldn't have to trace the gun.”
Still, you never know. The NRA, which, in the words of its CEO, Wayne LaPierre, regards the ATF as “jackbooted government thugs,” demands that Congress keep an eye on things.
“Hitler and Stalin, like every dictator who perpetrated genocide during the 20th century, assiduously confiscated guns before starting the genocide,” wrote gun-rights activist Dave Kopel in a recent NRA publication.
“Registration. Confiscation. Extinction. Each step makes the next step much easier.”
None of which has anything to do with what actually happens here. People here are trying to help cops on the street nab bad guys. “We are a factory producing investigative leads,” says Charlie. That is the point of the place in its entirety, despite anybody's worry.
“They say, ‘They've centralized the records. We're comin'!’ ” Charlie says. “Checking all different angles. ‘Are you keeping—you know, how are you keeping information? Are you collecting information you shouldn't be? Are you accessing information you shouldn't have access to? Has the computer world at the tracing center gone too far? We might need to back you off a little bit.’
“You go, ‘Back us off? Back us off?’ ”
How to Work the System
Recently, Charlie had a heart attack. “Yeah, it was pretty—yeah. They cut a hole in my arm, jammed a catheter up there, blew out the blockage. Then they sewed it back up. I rolled the windows down, drove to North Carolina, hung out on the beach the next day.”
He tells me he looked at the ocean, the waves rolling, seagulls gulping. He sat there and thought about his life, and what it would be without cigarettes.
I ask him if he thinks the stress of being the person in charge of keeping track of America's estimated 300 million guns—with the aid of little more than a photocopier—had anything to do with his heart giving out.
“I gotta go to the hospital on Friday for like five hours for tests to make sure I'm not gonna keel over dead soon,” he says.
We're in his office again, and he's in his shirtsleeves and his tie is loosened. He's chewing gum madly. He'll never smoke again. “Sometimes you just kind of wonder if you train-wrecked the thing, would you get more money?” he says, referring to the lack of funds and his frustration with this place. “ ‘Well, yeah, we couldn't solve this one!’ ‘Well why not?’ ‘Couldn't find the microfilm. Just took too long!’ Right?”
He glances out his window toward the parking lot. It's surrounded by a chain-link and barbed-wire fence lined with a black screen so no one can see in.
He tells me he has a wife he loves. “She's not the kind of wife you're gonna expect. She's an arson-and-explosives expert. She's working on a serial arsonist tonight.” He's got four kids and two grandbabies he loves. He's painted portraits of all of them. “Oil paints,” he says. “I read a book on it. How the masters, like, painted.” He's looking somewhere just over my head, like he's imagining all of this in the air. “What is the color that I used. Okay, burnt sienna. You get that on the outline, right?” He tells me about his guitar and learning flamenco music. “I got a book on it. But I hit a plateau.” He tells me about the history of the blues. “I got a book on it. You go, ‘Well, I gotta dump the nylon string. I need, like, an amp.” He tells me he blew his amp on “Gimme Shelter” the other night.
He started with the ATF as an agent in Detroit, infiltrating street gangs. That was his hometown. The auto industry, robots, process control—he loved that stuff. He studied computer science and industrial engineering in college, then joined the army full time and became an intelligence officer. “Which is, you know, the movement of large quantities of information, figuring out what's worth a damn.” Given his background, the ATF figured he might excel at more than gang work. “They said, ‘Hey, you might be a good fit for something that's computer-heavy,’ which…which we are in a certain sense here.”
Just without the computer.
He got to the National Tracing Center in 2005. He never expected to stay. It was a stepping stone to maybe a cushier deal maybe up at headquarters in D.C.
But then he started to think about ways to work with the antiquated system—and make it more efficient. Would it even be possible? “You mind if I do the whiteboard thing?” he says, standing up. It's covered in numbers, arrows, circles, and dashes. “I don't know what my mojo was here,” he says, looking at it, and then attacking it with the eraser. “I went to the bookstore just looking for a way to organize better and I just… Right?” He's looking at his tray of markers, trying to pick. “Like, ISO 9000 stuff, right? And you just stumble across something, you look at it and go, ‘Well, that looks like what I'm looking for.’ Six Sigma, you know that kind of stuff?' ”
I have no idea what he's talking about.
“I just found it at Barnes & Noble,” he says, in a tone suggesting that this shit is basic.
He uses the blue marker. “I mean, I know that the average person can type in 1,600 gun descriptions per eight-hour day,” he says, scrawling the numbers. “Why? Because I time-and-motion studied them. And then—I don't know if you know anything about queuing theory. Do you have one line with three cash registers—or do you have three lines come into one?” Arrows, circles. He's moved on to the black marker. “There's a whole science of mathematics behind queuing theory. So what we did was, I sat around trying to figure out what would be the best way to queue the traces up and punch them through….
“Let's say yours is one hour, 60 minutes. Yours is one minute, yours is one minute, and yours is one minute, right? One minute, one minute, one minute, one minute…one, two, three minutes…”
In these moments, I realize that during his tenure here at the tracing center, and faced with the obstacle of no computerized search technology, Charlie went ahead and turned himself into the computer.
Soon he's got the green marker going, and next it's purple. He sees it all on the whiteboard and in the air, and soon he is spinning and pointing. “…So now it's 69, 72 minutes, divide by 4…4 goes into that once…32, 80…My turnaround time just became 18 minutes! I just shuffled you around in a different order. Average turnaround time. Right?”
It doesn't matter if I follow; he's so happy about all this I want to clap. For five years Charlie took it upon himself to create a new workflow system for the tracing center, breaking down each step in the tracing process into equations, doing time-motion studies for actions as minute as how long on average it takes the ladies to go from their desks to the roll room. Every step was analyzed and rethought, the numbers crunched.
And now? Despite no increase in budget, no new technology, no new staff: “I'm doing twice as many guns, twice as fast, and almost twice as accurately as we did when I got here in 2005.”
He tosses the markers in the rack, sits down. I can tell he wants a cigarette.
Charlie didn't train-wreck anything. Charlie did the opposite. And maybe there's some solace in that fact alone. If America has to have this gargantuan arsenal of personal firearms, and no registration system, no laws allowing us to keep track of them like we do, say, cars, or household appliances, or bags of lettuce, well, at least we have Charlie. You can pass laws and add amendments until you paralyze an entire institution, but you can't outlaw the natural human urge to make life better.
“So we fire the Glocks through as fast as they go into mainstream tracing, and we send the gun made in the Czechoslovakian factory, which is gonna take a genius an hour, send Czechoslovakia over here…. That's how you start stripping time off stuff!”
“What's in It for Charlie?”
What's in it for any of these people who don't ever seem to leave the National Tracing Center? I meet one woman who's 84 years old. She unpacks boxes. She says she won't leave until they kick her out. Nobody here seems all that put out by the microfilm reading, or the staple removing, or even the box sorting. “I love tracing,” people say.
Back in the cubicles, I sit with an ATF specialist named Daniel Urrutia. He's a big guy, shy, a blocky head and a thick accent. He's been here 18 years. Everybody I talk to has been here years and years. Urrutia tells me about a 96-year-old guy who got robbed and beaten nearly to death in his own home; the gun trace that Urrutia did on the stolen gun is what broke the case and how they caught the assailant. He tells me about an 8-year-old girl who got killed, and a college girl who got raped, and in both cases the gun trace Urrutia did solved the crime. He tells these stories in detail, explaining why he searched one place, rather than another, and how critical these choices were, and how he agonized over them, and somewhere in the middle of the stories, his eyes well up. At first I think he's got allergies or something—he is not a person you imagine crying. “When I first started, I was the lowest salary in the whole tracing center, as a contractor,” he tells me. “Now I'm doing this.” He points to a framed letter from the Floyd County, Indiana, police, thanking him for the valuable role he played in nabbing the monster who beat up the 96-year-old man.
The longer I stick around the National Tracing Center, the more emotion starts pouring out.
“That's how I look at this,” Hester explains. “It's an honor to do what I do. I mean, you have the Gabby Giffords case. That's a classic example. I had that one done within an hour, tied right to the shooter. Problem solved. At that point, the defense can't say, ‘Well, it wasn't his gun.’ Really? His name's on the form; he signed it. Guess what? You're done, topic over.
“I've had situations where the tracing's been done where the guy bought the gun, you know, 25 years ago and he's still got the gun and he did something stupid with it. I've had situations where the person bought the gun two hours before the crime. I had a lady who bought a gun five minutes before the crime. She went home and killed her kid, and then herself.
“There are some that will stick…. A lot of them stick in my head and won't go away.”
“I know I should move on,” Linda Mills tells me, hours after she first started zooming through microfilm looking for the Remington shotgun, which she has not yet located. Sooner or later you're supposed to give up and start a new case, but she's not surrendering. “You think, ‘What if it were my child, or what if it was my parent, or what if it's somebody that I love whose life is involved?’ ”
“The day of the Newtown shooting,” Urrutia says, “I was the whole day here. A day and a half. When I sleep? I slept here.”
That's the one I hear most about. Everyone I meet eventually wants to tell me what that day in 2012 was like.
“Newtown was traumatic,” Charlie tells me. “People were bawling and tracing and bawling. Everybody's going, ‘Oh, my God, somebody's done what? It's a kindergarten class? Who, what, how many?’ There's confusion. We start to get a little bit of stuff. Everybody's jumping around, waiting for anything they can get. We gotta get this, you know, right? We gotta do something, we gotta do something, we gotta do something. C'mon, c'mon, let us, give us a chance, right? Put us in. You know? Give us, give us—give us a way to contribute. Let us do our part. Because that's, you know, that's what I get out of this whole thing.
“You go, ‘What do you get, Charlie?’ Right? ‘What's in it for Charlie?’ That's what I get.
“This place looks to you like a factory. Right? It looks like a factory and a government cube farm. And that's what it is. But 1,200 traces a day, of which we have no idea which one's going to save somebody's life. You don't know which one, so which one do you get to mess up on? Which one do you go slow on? Which one? Uh—well, none of them, right? None of them.”
Jeanne Marie Laskas is a GQ correspondent. Additional reporting by Rachel Wilkinson.