N.J. police target gun traffickers

Correction printed by The Bergen Record: An article about a new state program tracing illegal guns should have said that the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives maintains a database that tracks information about guns recovered at crime scenes. It does not track all weapons sold in the nation.

By Heather Haddon
The Record

BERGEN COUNTY, N.J. — A new state program is gathering unprecedented information about illegal guns traveling into New Jersey, and police expect to tap those data this year as part of a statewide crackdown on weapons used in violent crimes.

New Jersey has some of the strictest gun laws in the country, but they can't stop people from bringing weapons here from less-regulated states. Almost three-quarters of guns recovered in New Jersey were purchased elsewhere, according to federal data released last year.

To help stanch that flow, New Jersey will this month become the first state in the nation to directly partner with federal firarms officials in pursuing gun traffickers across state borders.

"We're going to start knocking on doors at the end of January," said state police Detective Sgt. Eric Barlow.

About 15 percent of the 3,800 guns recovered in New Jersey and traced by the ATF in 2007 came from Pennsylvania, which has weaker gun laws, federal data show. Officers recovered 70 of the guns that year in Paterson.

The new NJ Trace System is a partnership between state police and federal authorities to discourage the purchase of illegal guns on city streets. Last year, New Jersey became the first state to establish a center to collect and analyze federal data about guns recovered at crime scenes.

Cost for the program is minimal, and leaders from other states are eager to implement their own versions, state police said.

"We're getting calls weekly," said Lt. Col. Christopher Andreychak, a state police commander who helped develop the program.

Two years ago Wednesday, Paterson Officer Tyron Franklin was killed by a man who had been convicted of felony handgun charges in Essex County, barring him from legally purchasing a gun.

The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives keeps a database of the make, model and buyer of weapons sold across the nation. The information is used to monitor gun trends and prosecute large traffickers.

When a local police department recovers a gun at a crime scene, investigators determine if the gun is stolen by checking the FBI's National Crime Information Center database. Federal law does not require officers to make a separate written inquiry about the gun's purchaser and history of past crimes to the ATF.

Three years ago, state police became concerned about the thousands of recovered guns that were not submitted for ATF tracing. Police averaged 40,000 stolen-property searches on guns a year, but traced fewer than 4,000 with the ATF, Barlow said.

"We were missing tons of information," Barlow said. "Obviously the paper requests weren't working."

In December 2006, state police and ATF representatives in Trenton agreed to share information about traces requested by New Jersey police departments. It took more than a year to develop the protocol, train police and create a computer system to communicate between local departments and the ATF.

In February, the state Attorney General's Office mandated that local police departments use NJ Trace for all guns recovered. The software prompts officers to enter the gun's make, model and recovery location, sending that information to the ATF to check its purchaser, seller and criminal history.

The ATF relays the information back to the state police's New Jersey Crime Gun Center in Trenton. Analysts watch for "straw buyers," people who buy the guns legally and sell them on the street without a permit. They also flag weapons involved in crimes shortly after being purchased.

The pilot program has dramatically increased the number of gun traces conducted in New Jersey. Passaic County officials traced 210 weapons in the last seven months, double the number in 2007, Barlow said.

"We did as much as we could before. But ATF really helped give us a structure," said Bill Maer of the Passaic Sheriff's Department.

To demonstrate NJ Trace's usefulness in prosecuting criminals, the Attorney General's Office relied on it to indict five men in May. Police believe the men were straw buyers who legally purchased weapons in Pennsylvania and sold them on the streets of Trenton for a profit. The men separately bought a total of 10 weapons between them at gun shops in Bucks County, Pa., according to the allegations from the Attorney General's Office.

This month, the state will sign an agreement with the ATF to increase the program's manpower to investigate buyers, Andreychak said.

The FBI will send four agents to the gun center to work with three state troopers sworn in as federal investigators, he said. Working with the center's four analysts, the team will act on traces collected and analyzed last year, including eight weapons recovered by the Paterson Police Department in April. The investigators will track possible straw buyers across the country.

Police hope to eventually win felony convictions. Such convictions make buying a gun illegal.

"This helps breaks the cycle," Barlow said. "Many purchasers have committed misdemeanor offenses, but they can still buy guns."

Costs for the program are negligible. State police built the NJ Trace software and reassigned four troopers to the gun center, Andreychak said. The ATF pays for the two full-time analysts, and two part-time investigators will cost the state about $87,000 a year.

Andreychak said governors and senators from across the country have asked him about the NJ Trace program. He's agreed to provide the software for free, he said.

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