In this age of databases, the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives should have needed nothing more than the serial number to instantly identify who bought the AR-15 rifle, which after the fourth murdered seven people and 60 others July Parade in Highland Park, Illinois.
But just as a lopsided interpretation of the Second Amendment makes acquiring such weapons far too easy, those who fear the government will grab their guns have codified their paranoia into federal law and made tracing far too difficult.
The owner of the Highland Park murder weapon might have spent hours making out with a second gun if it weren’t for the ATF agents determined to tackle the legal obstacles.
Along with a bit of luck.
U.S. government agents are notoriously reluctant to work weekends and holidays, so street cops rant about “Federal Fridays” when there’s hardly a Fed in sight after 2 p.m
ATF has long been a notable exception and proved it again this past Bank Holiday weekend after the shooting 20 miles north of Chicago.
The murder weapon was wrapped in a red blanket and dropped from the roof of a cosmetics shop on the parade route. ATF agents responded at the scene as representatives of the only law enforcement agency with the authority to locate firearms. However, their powers are limited by a compromise in the Gun Control Act 1968, which prohibits the government from establishing a centralized registry of gun owners.
2022 technology could allow an ATF agent to simply enter a serial number into their cell phone and instantly find the owner’s name. But there is no such database that can be accessed.
The best the agents could do was contact ATF’s National Tracing Center in Martinsburg, West Virginia. The people there began a process they do an average of 8,000 times a day, nearly 3 million times a year, virtually all of them initiated by crime in this violent and gun-obsessed nation.
Agents in Illinois made this request an “urgent lead.” Her colleagues at the search center immediately got to work. They began by contacting the manufacturer, who had records leading to the state-licensed retailer who had sold the gun.
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 that is filled out by hand and signed by both the buyer and the dealer. The purchaser must tick “yes” or “no” to such questions as to whether he or she has ever been convicted of a felony or committed to a mental institution. A “yes” does not result in a weapon.
If a sale is made, the dealer must keep the 4473s on site, but is prohibited from entering them into a database. This means that the only way for ATF to access the information is if the dealer is actually at his place of business and accesses the file.
“Then it’s up to our agents to find the owner,” Kimberly Nerheim, spokeswoman for ATF’s Chicago field office, told The Daily Beast while describing the process in general terms. “It’s all very paper intensive.”
If the dealer had not been available, the investigation would have stalled, despite ATF’s best efforts. The agents were lucky and within hours of the shot they had contacted the dealer, who found a 4473 form with the relevant serial number entered in Section A on the first page. Section B had the buyer’s handwritten surname, crime thrillerfollowed by the first Robert.
The agents gave the name to the police and Robert Crimo III was arrested soon after.
“The gun led straight to him,” Lake County Major Crimes Task Force Deputy Chief Christopher Covelli said at a news conference Tuesday after Crimo was charged with seven counts of murder.
Covelli reported that Crimo had dealt with Highland Park Police twice before. One was in April 2019 after a report that he had attempted suicide a week earlier. Covelli said police spoke to Crimo and his parents.
“The matter was being handled by mental health professionals at the time,” Covelli said. “It was a mental health issue that was dealt with by these professionals.”
Highland Park Police were back at the home in September 2019 after someone in the family reported that Crimo had spoken of “killing everyone”. Responding officers had confiscated 16 knives, a dagger and a sword from Crimo. But no one filed a formal complaint and there was no reason to arrest him and committing him to a psychiatric facility “was not an option at the time”.
“Nevertheless, the Highland Park Police Department has notified the state police,” Covelli reported.
Elsewhere, Covelli noted that purchasing a gun in Illinois requires a state firearms owner identification, or FOID card.
“This is a process managed solely by the state police and I can’t comment on that,” he said.
Covelli also reported that Crimo bought his two rifles after the September 2019 incident. He could only have done so with a FOID card issued by the state police.
Covelli further reported that Crimo purchased the guns when he was under 21, an age at which those convicted of even one misdemeanor are generally barred.
The federal government’s minimum age to purchase a firearm is 18. However, in Illinois, anyone under the age of 21 must obtain written consent from a parent or legal guardian, who must also obtain a FOID card.
State police say the father, Robert Crimo II, signed the form allowing Robert Crimo III to obtain two rifles, though the son reportedly attempted suicide and threatened the family.
The father could not be reached for comment. The state police issued a press release.
“In September 2019, ISP received a clear and available hazard report on the subject from the Highland Park Police Department. The report related to threats made by the subject against his family. No arrests were made in the September 2019 incident and no one, including the family, was willing to file a complaint and subsequently provided no threat or mental health information that would have allowed law enforcement to take additional action. In addition, no firearms restraining order or protective order was issued.
“At the time of the September 2019 incident, the data subject did not have a FOID card to revoke or a pending FOID request to deny. Once that determination was made, the Illinois State Police’s involvement in the matter was complete.
“Then, in December 2019, at the age of 19, the person applied for a FOID card. The subject was under 21 and the application was sponsored by the subject’s father. Therefore, at the time the FOID application was reviewed in January 2020, there was insufficient basis to determine a clear and present hazard 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 reported to pose a clear and present danger.
At least it should be easier to track them.
And the next time a right-wing politician like Ohio Republican Senate nominee JD Vance talks about defunding ATF, remember what those agents did with determination and a little luck on July 4th.
“We’re very proud of that,” ATF’s Nerheim told The Daily Beast.
https://www.thedailybeast.com/why-it-took-grit-and-luck-to-trace-the-parade-massacre-gun-to-robert-bobby-crimo?source=articles&via=rss Why it took guts — and luck — to trace the parade massacre weapon back to Robert “Bobby” Crimo