Enhancing Firearms Investigations with the Latest Analytical Tools

May 2023

Of all the inventions in human history, firearms may be the most controversial. Opinions about firearms vary widely around the world, and laws and regulations about guns differ by country, state / territory, and local jurisdictions. These weapons are nearly impossible to get in some places, and readily available in nearby regions. This difference in availability often leads to annoyance among law-abiding gun enthusiasts who want to own and transport guns for legitimate reasons such as hunting, target shooting, collecting, and self-defense. However, the use of firearms by criminals brings a challenging dynamic to gun regulation. In fact, illegal dealing of firearms is a criminal industry of its own.

While legally obtained guns can certainly be used in the commission of a crime, it is very common for crimes to involve firearms that were obtained through illegal sources. Even if the weapon itself is designated as a legal commodity, there may be laws governing the way that it is sold and documented. For instance, private sales of firearms are often illegal in certain jurisdictions. Andrew Thompson of Voyager Labs explains that a crime involving a firearm often requires two investigations. One investigation focuses on apprehending the suspect for a robbery, murder, or other crime. The second investigation seeks to determine how the gun got into the suspect’s hands, and to prevent other criminals from obtaining weapons from the same source. Finding the source of a firearm used in a crime may lead investigators to an individual in a single transaction, or it could lead them to a ring of arms dealers who regularly smuggle firearms across state lines or national borders. The best way to track the source and path of the firearm, and to prosecute those who were involved in its illegal distribution, is to conduct a thorough investigation using the most advanced technology.

After working with the NYPD and the ATF conducting firearms investigations, Thompson has seen an evolution in the illegal sale and transportation of all kinds of guns, in and out of New York, and out of the United States to arm foreign cartels. Even when criminals use clever smuggling methods like hiding weapons inside of car parts, there is usually still a digital trail that the authorities can follow. New analytical tools can use minimal inputs to search the open, deep and dark web to find and translate evidence from over a hundred languages, find or confirm real identities, and surface connections among persons of interest and their associates using publicly available, open source data. Some of these analytical tools are provided and managed by the federal government, and some are the creations of private industry. When used together, firearms investigations become exponentially faster and more effective.

Thompson explains that, when a firearm is recovered in relation to a crime, it is checked in the eTrace, ATF’s electronic firearms tracing system. There are certain conditions that require an FFL (Federal Firearms License / Licensee) to inform the ATF of a purchase, i.e., multiple firearms purchased at once. Once a report is made, the information is incorporated into the eTrace system. This trace then begins at the manufacturer (or importer) and terminates with the original FFL and the licensing form that is filled out by the purchaser. This is usually the first step in the investigation, and it has the potential to provide key evidence about the weapon’s chain of owners.

One of the most useful tools that Thompson applied in firearms investigation was the NIBIN database (National Integrated Ballistic Information Network). This remarkable database matches shell casings found at crime scenes to casings taken from recovered firearms, effectively pairing a casing with a specific gun that’s on file. This is extremely useful when investigators have casings but not the firearm in question. They can often match the casings from one crime scene to a firearm that was recovered elsewhere, documenting locations where the weapon was used.

When a gun is brought into evidence, firearms forensics experts can obtain the serial number and use the NIBIN firearms database to locate the licensed seller who originally purchased the firearm from the manufacturer. This is, effectively, the origin of the gun’s journey. Now the investigators know where the gun came from and where it ended up, its beginning point and end point.

The next step is to fill in the gaps in between those two contacts. This is where investigative software tools come in. In many cases, the licensed arms seller did not supply the weapon directly to the criminal. Criminals often hire people with clean criminal records to purchase guns, “straw purchasers.” The purchasers then report the weapons as stolen, or “sell” them in a private sale and (conveniently) do not have any sales records if investigated. Many states don’t require the seller in a private sale to retain any records, which makes this process much more convenient for criminals to obtain firearms.

However, with the right technology, investigators can trace the steps of the weapon to see where it has been and who is guilty of illegally selling, buying, transporting, and using the weapon. Once the seller has been established, law enforcement can gain a subpoena or warrant for phone records, transactions, social media, and other information related to the seller. A range of analytical tools can be used to identify the connections between individuals and groups to see whose hands the weapon passed through.

In the age of digital communications and social media, most crimes have some kind of digital footprint via security camera footage, databases, financial transactions, phone calls, and online interactions through the worldwide web, deep web, and dark web. In most cases, the evidence is out there somewhere. The challenge is to collect and analyze it as quickly and efficiently as possible. Even a simple investigation could take an experienced team months to complete, just because of the sheer volume of data. Fortunately, the latest digital investigation tools can act as a massive force multiplier as they find, organize, prioritize, and analyze related information from various sources. This information can be used to fully develop a case against an individual, or to identify a larger criminal network that may also be involved in drug dealing, human trafficking, and a range of other illegal activities. In these cases, a single firearm can potentially lead the authorities to identify and stop an entire criminal organization.

To learn more about this topic, and how Voyager Labs’ solutions can enhance firearms investigations, contact us here.

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