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WATCH: Rochester ATF Ups Manpower for Gun Violence Spike


Mayor Lovely Warren is sticking to her plan to strengthen the presence of law enforcement in Rochester, and she’s put some pressure on the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to increase its staff.

In a nondescript office in the heart of the city, agents hailing from other divisions have moved in over the past year. 

The U.S. Border Patrol, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine operations, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the New York State Division of Parole, and the Rochester Police Department have each sent one officer to work for the Rochester ATF. And in the last few weeks, the unit has hired four new ATF agents.

“The mayor said she wants to beef up our task force in response to all the violence,” explains Resident Agent in Charge Scott Heagney.

The latest call for increased staffing came after a man was arrested for using an AK-47 assault rifle in a triple homicide on Genesee Street in August. That firearm has been linked to a burglary in July. It was stolen from a gun safe during a home invasion, and allegedly handed off to the Genesee gunman later.

Every gun has a story to tell. And it’s only through tracing it that investigators can discover its origin and how the weapon got to the scene where it was ultimately recovered.

Renewed attention to gun laws

According to Charles Mulham, public information officer for ATF New York City, more than 7,686 firearms were recovered and traced in New York State in 2014. Of those, 435 were found in Rochester.

“Trafficking weapons is illegal. If you’re buying a weapon that you’re claiming is going to be yours and then you willfully and knowingly put that weapon in someone else’s hands, you’re committing a crime.”

But there is no federal law that defines gun trafficking as a crime. In October, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand outlined a second bid to try and change that.

Her proposed legislation would make it illegal to sell or provide two or more guns to someone who is not allowed to own a gun, such as a felon. The bill also would punish those who provide misleading information to the ATF, and punish those who facilitate gun trafficking.  

Similar legislation was introduced in 2013 but did not pass the Senate. This bill, if passed, would establish gun trafficking as a federal crime for the first time.

There are a variety of reasons for guns being moved illegally around the country by various types of people. For the most part, the offenders are trying to make a quick buck.

“You can get some weapons that are $39 or $49 dollars retail in a southern state and then come up into an area like this in New York, and then sell that same weapon for $300 or $400,” says Mulham.

The trace

Each gun has a unique fingerprint that includes the make, model, serial number, country of origin, and the caliber.

A display of firearms recovered by ATF in conjunction with the Rochester Police Department in the "Chain Gang/Wolf Pack" case.

  Tracing guns involves a great deal of back-tracking. The process reveals who had the weapon last in the distribution chain, and this is where the investigation begins.

Take a Smith and Wesson revolver, for example. Let’s assume that gun was found at a crime scene:

Work begins at the National Tracing Center in Martinsburg, West Virginia where teams of people begin to make phone calls. The first call will be to Smith and Wesson to confirm the weapon as one of theirs, and reveal which wholesaler they sold it to and when.

The Smith and Wesson representative then calls the wholesaler. The wholesaler confirms that deal and discloses which retailer it sold the weapon to. When the tracing center operator receives that information, they contact the retailer which reveals who purchased the gun and when.

At the time of sale, the purchaser would have filled out ATF Form 4473, answering a variety of legal questions.

“One of the questions is is he buying the gun for himself which is obviously an issue that we are all experiencing now, where people are buying these weapons in southern states for other people and then having those weapons trafficked up to New York,” says Mulham.

In Rochester, the increase in ATF agents means more investigators focusing on tracing illegal guns, which they hope will lead to more convictions and ultimately less gun trafficking.  

“We want to put an end to that. We want to do it in a way that none of us get hurt and do it quickly to get that area back to normal,” says Mulham.

Sasha-Ann Simons joined the team at WXXI News in 2015 as a Multimedia Reporter/Producer. She tells stories about the innovation economy and technology in upstate New York and also does general assignment reporting. Sasha-Ann is the host of Arts InFocus, WXXI-TV's weekly arts and culture program. She is also a fill-in host and regular contributor to Need To Know.