New Jersey Traces Source of Guns Seized in Crimes

Unable to stop the tide of violence from illegal guns, New Jersey's cities are getting new-found help from the state police to track where the weapons are coming from. It's the first state in the nation to devise a comprehensive program to trace the guns and provide the information to cities doing battle against street violence.

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New Jersey has become the first state in the nation to begin systematically tracing the source of illegal guns. It will be tracking every gun seized in every crime by every police officer in the state. Officials hope that this will help get the guns off the streets before crimes are committed.

Nancy Solomon has our report.

NANCY SOLOMON: Mark Agnifilo spent nine years prosecuting violent crimes for the U.S. attorney in New Jersey. He remembers the murder that bothered him most. An 8-year-old boy was being recruited by the Bloods gang in East Orange to carry drugs in his school backpack. His father tried to stop the gang from coming near his son. So, Agnifilo says, the gang sent a hit man named Amir Winn to the family's home.

Mr. MARK AGNIFILO (Former U.S. Attorney, New Jersey): While LaQuan Brooks was still in front of his 8-year-old son, his 3-year-old daughter, his wife and their other children, Winn shot and killed him execution style. This was a murder that we were just desperate to solve. It's just such an affront to what we tell parents to do. And here's a good man, a good father, trying to do the right thing and he's shot dead in the street in front of his family.

SOLOMON: Winn was arrested a week later and the gun that killed Brooks was found hidden above the ceiling tiles in his apartment. It had been bought legally by a straw purchaser, someone with no criminal record who buys it for someone who can't.

Agnifilo eventually prosecuted not just Winn and several other gang members but also the owner of the Hole in the Wall gun store in Sidney(ph), Ohio. Gun traffickers were buying nine-millimeter automatic handguns, sometimes as many as 50 in one purchase.

Mr. AGNIFILO: It's one of the few examples that I saw in nine years as a violent crime prosecutor where we essentially built the whole bridge, starting with the gun store owner and ending up with the shooter in homicides. It doesn't happen very often.

SOLOMON: That's because most of the illegal guns in New Jersey are purchased in small batches, which makes it more difficult to prove a gun trafficking charge. Another problem, says State Police Detective Denise Mediya(ph), is that gun tracing information from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives can't be shared between police departments.

Ms. DENISE MEDIYA (New Jersey State Police Detective): If Newark's traced information comes back to John Smith and Irvington's traced information comes back to John Smith, the ATF can only let Irvington know their information and Newark know their information.

SOLOMON: So now the state police will act as a go-between to make all ATF gun trace requests in New Jersey and share the results with local police. They say it's necessary because of the Tiahrt Amendment, which has been attached to ATF funding bill since 2003 by Kansas Congressman Todd Tiahrt, and strongly supported by the National Rifle Association.

It prohibits the ATF from disclosing gun trace information to anyone other than the police agency requesting it. Tiahrt says it's needed to stop confidential police information from being revealed in civil lawsuits against gun makers, which then makes the information public.

Representative TODD TIAHRT (Republican, Kansas): And therefore places these police officers, who put their lives in jeopardy to protect us, would reveal who they are, where they live, how you get a hold of them. From that information, you could easily find out who their family is and they would be extremely vulnerable.

SOLOMON: But with mounting opposition to his amendment, Tiahrt says, he's proposed changes that will allow law enforcement agencies to share information. The NRA says it wants to keep gun trace data only in the hands of police and not allow it to be used for political purposes.

Gun control advocates counter it's about protecting gun manufacturers and sellers who turn a blind eye toward gun trafficking because the business is so profitable.

Brian Miller of Ceasefire New Jersey says he's encouraged by New Jersey's gun tracing program but worries it won't go far enough.

Mr. BRIAN MILLER (Executive Director, Ceasefire New Jersey): You definitely can't arrest your way out of the problem. Laws have to be changed, and it's difficult to get legislators to see things your way unless you have good evidence. And that's exactly why the NRA has pushed the Tiahrt Amendment so hard - to keep us from having that evidence to use with legislators.

SOLOMON: Miller says New Jersey's new gun trace program shows how frustrated police, prosecutors and urban mayors have become with federal inaction on gun control. So they're turning to their state capitals, looking for help to stop the flow of guns onto city streets.

For NPR News, I'm Nancy Solomon in South Orange, New Jersey.

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