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An important tool for police

Tracing crime guns a way to reduce violence

CSI is one of the hottest shows on television. Brilliant investigative minds use all the tools to catch criminals and make us safer.

Now it’s time for Illinois law enforcement to use the most basic tool to fight gun violence: tracing crime guns. It costs the police nothing and solves crimes, yet hundreds of Illinois law enforcement agencies still don’t use this basic crime-fighting tool.

Here’s how the crime gun tracing system works.  When a gun is recovered in a criminal investigation, a police department or sheriff’s office can send the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) information about the gun’s make, model and serial number.  ATF can then trace the gun from its manufacturer to its first retail purchaser.

The information that is collected through tracing can help generate leads in identifying the person who used the gun to commit a crime and help law enforcement identify broader crime gun trends and trafficking patterns.

Let me be clear – this is only a database for crime guns, not a federal registry of law-abiding gun owners.

Because crime gun tracing is such an important part of its efforts to combat gun crime and illegal gun trafficking, ATF has made it free and easy for local police departments and sheriff’s offices to trace their guns.

Using an Internet-based tracing program, called eTrace, law enforcement agencies can send and access a searchable computer database to analyze all gun traces and gun crimes in their jurisdiction.
There are over 800 police departments and sheriff’s offices in Illinois. In 2006, I sent letters to the majority of them urging them to sign up for eTrace.

In Cook County, Sheriff Tom Dart has done an excellent job encouraging suburban police departments to use tracing in crime investigations and improve our knowledge about how firearms end up in the hands of criminals. As of today, 392 Illinois law enforcement agencies have signed up.

That’s a pretty good number, but we can do better. Every police department and sheriff’s office in Illinois should sign up for eTrace, and should use it for every crime gun they recover. Even if it’s a small police department that doesn’t recover guns often, they should sign up for eTrace now so they can be ready to move quickly if they do recover a crime gun.

For those agencies that still aren’t convinced, I will be introducing a bill that will create a significant incentive for them to sign up immediately.

My Crime Gun Tracing Act  will require law enforcement agencies that apply for federal COPS grants to report how many crime guns they recovered in the last year and how many they submitted for tracing. The bill will then give a preference in COPS grant awards to agencies that traced all the crime guns they recovered.

But, police chiefs and sheriffs shouldn’t just wait for my bill to pass before they start tracing.  They should start tracing today – and I will be sending letters to the Illinois chiefs and sheriffs who haven’t signed up for eTrace yet to urge them to do so voluntarily.

Solving violent gun crimes and targeting crime gun trafficking networks are among the highest law enforcement priorities for our nation. Increasing the use of crime gun tracing will help law enforcement catch criminals and shut down illegal trafficking organizations. 


Sen. Dick Durbin is a Democrat who represents Illinois in the U.S. Senate, where he serves as the assistant senate majority leader.

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