In this age of databases, the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives would need nothing more than the serial number to immediately identify who bought the AR-15 style rifle used to kill seven people and injure another 60 after the July 4 parade in Highland Park, Illinois.
But just as a skewed interpretation of the Second Amendment makes obtaining such weapons far too easy, those who fear the government will seize their weapons have their paranoia codified in federal law and made tracking far too difficult.
Along with a little luck.
By reputation, US government agents tend to be so averse to working weekends and holidays that street cops grumble about “federal Fridays,” when no fed is seen after 2 p.m.
ATF has long been a notable exception, proving again this past holiday weekend in the wake of the shooting 20 miles north of Chicago.
The murder weapon had been wrapped in a red blanket and had fallen from the roof of a cosmetics store on the parade route. ATF agents arrived on the scene as representatives of the only law enforcement agency with the authority to detect firearms. But their powers are limited by a compromise in the Gun Control Act of 1968 that prohibits the government from establishing a centralized registry of gun owners.
The technology of 2022 could allow an ATF agent to simply enter a serial number into their cell phone and immediately come up with the owner’s name. But there is no such database.
The best the agents could do was contact ATF’s National Tracing Center in Martinsburg, West Virginia. The people there started a process that they carry out on average 8,000 times a day, nearly 3 million times a year, virtually all initiated by crime in this violent and gun-obsessed country.
The agents in Illinois made this request an “urgent lead.” Their colleagues from the investigation center immediately got to work. They started by contacting the manufacturer, who had data leading to the federally licensed retailer who sold the weapon.
But there the trail returned to a time before computers. The buyer’s name is legally recorded only on a Form 4473, a three-page document completed by hand and signed by both the buyer and the dealer. The buyer must tick “yes” or “no” next to questions such as whether he or she has ever been convicted of a crime or committed to a mental institution. A “yes” results in no gun.
When a sale goes through, the dealer is required to keep the 4473’s on the property, but may not enter it into a database. That means the only way for the ATF to access the information is for the dealer to actually be at his or her place of business and pick up the file.
“Then it’s up to our agents to find the owner,” Kimberly Nerheim, spokeswoman for the ATF Chicago field office, told The Daily Beast, describing the process in general terms. “It’s all very paper-intensive.”
Had the dealer been unreachable, the investigation would have stalled despite ATF’s best efforts. The agents were lucky and within hours of the shooting they had contacted the dealer, who found a Form 4473 with the corresponding serial number in Section A on the first page. Section B had the buyer’s handwritten last name, crimefollowed by the first, Robert†
The officers named the police and Robert Crimo III was arrested shortly after.
“The gun pointed straight at him,” Lake County Major Crime Task Force deputy chief Christopher Covelli said at a news conference Tuesday, after Crimo was charged with seven murders.
Covelli reported that Crimo had two previous contacts with the Highland Park Police Department. One was in April 2019 after a report that he had attempted suicide a week earlier. Covelli said police have spoken to Crimo and his parents.
“The case was being handled by mental health professionals at the time,” Covelli said. “It was a mental health issue that was handled by those professionals.”
Highland Park Police were back at the house in September 2019 after someone in the family reported that Crimo had spoken of “killing everyone”. The responding officers had seized 16 knives, a dagger and a sword from Crimo. But no one made a formal complaint and there were no grounds for arresting him, and locking him up in a mental institution “wasn’t an option at the time.”
“However, Highland Park Police have notified the state police,” Covelli reported.
On another point, Covelli noted that to buy a gun in Illinois, you need a state gun owner’s identification or FOID card.
“That’s a process run solely by the state police, and I can’t talk to that,” he said.
Covelli also reported that Crimo bought both his rifles after the September 2019 incident. He could only have done so with a FOID card from the state police.
Covelli went on to report that Crimo bought the guns when he was under 21, an age at which people with even a conviction for a crime are generally barred.
The federal government minimum age to purchase a firearm is 18 years old. But Illinois requires those under 21 to have the written consent of a parent or legal guardian, who must also have a FOID card.
State police say the father, Robert Crimo II, signed the form allowing Robert Crimo III to get two guns, even though the son allegedly committed suicide and threatened the family.
The father could not be reached for comment. The state police has issued a press release.
“In September 2019, ISP received a Clear and Present Danger report on this subject from the Highland Park Police Department. The report was related to threats the person had made against his family. No arrests were made during the September 2019 incident and no one, including family, was willing to proceed with a complaint, nor did they subsequently provide any threat or mental health information that could have allowed law enforcement to take additional action. In addition, no firearms ban was filed, nor was a protection order filed.
“At the time of the September 2019 incident, the subject did not have a FOID card to revoke or a pending FOID application to decline. Once this decision was made, the Illinois state police’s involvement in the case was closed.
“Then, in December 2019, at the age of 19, the person applied for a FOID card. The subject was under 21 years of age and the application was sponsored by the subject’s father. Therefore, at the time of the assessment of the FOID application in January 2020, there was insufficient basis to determine a clear and present danger and to deny the FOID application.”
All of this includes further evidence that such weapons are too easy to obtain for young men who are said to pose a clear and present danger.
In any case, it should be easier to trace them.
And the next time a right-wing politician like Ohio Republican Senate nominee JD Vance talks about defunding ATF, think about what those agents did on July 4th with determination and a bit of luck.
“We’re super proud of that,” ATF’s Nerheim told The Daily Beast.
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