CrimeWatch The Tracers, GQ's Eye-Opening Documentary on How Guns Are Tracked in America
You think it'd be simple. It isn't.
Read the Story: "Inside The Federal Bureau Of Way Too Many Guns”
There’s no telling how many guns we have in America. Estimates put the figure north of 300 million, but that’s merely a guess. For years, the gun lobby has toiled to make it absurdly difficult for anybody to know too much about America’s guns—including law enforcement. So, when a gun is used in a crime, cops from all over the country turn for help to the ATF's National Tracing Center, the only agency permitted to trace America’s guns. It’s a place where a herculean chore is made more difficult by laws designed to keep gun ownership murky and where a dedicated slew of federal employees nonetheless does the improbable.
GQ correspondent Jeanne Marie Laskas wanted to understand why. And so, for the last couple of years, she’s visited the National Tracing Center and gotten to know Charlie Houser, the ATF agent in charge of the place. What she’s discovered in her piece in the September 2016 issue of GQ, "Inside The Federal Bureau Of Way Too Many Guns,” was that even in the midst of an epidemic of national gun violence, there remains a small but inspiring group of people somehow contending with the outrages of our gun laws. From a low-slung office building in West Virginia, employees at the ATF's National Tracing Center—handicapped by laws that make computerized searching of gun records illegal—must sift by hand through millions of records. They comb through microfilm and sort through stacks of old paper slips, looking for answers that might solve a murder, or might stop a killer, or might begin to explain any of the scores of shootings that occur every week in America. Though their jobs are made purposefully tough by laws that constrain them to the tools and technologies from another era, they somehow succeed with astounding regularity.
To accompany Laskas' piece, the photographer and filmmaker Steven Brahms captured the personalities and challenges of the National Tracing Center in his film, The Tracers. It shows how the center’s staff is called upon to solve gun crimes, and takes viewers inside the rarely-seen gun reference library that the ATF maintains. It’s a giant repository of nearly every gun you can imagine—and more than a few that you definitely haven’t.