Pa. to better track firearms used in crimes as violence continues to soar

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — The Pennsylvania attorney general’s office launched an effort Thursday to improve the use of firearms databases, so law enforcement can better track guns used in crimes and, ultimately, clamp down on gun violence.

The move comes amid a surge in such violence in Philadelphia. The city’s rate of homicides this year is about the same as it was in 2018, when Philadelphia recorded 349 of them, the most since 2007.

Speaking at a news conference in Erie, Attorney General Josh Shapiro said he wants police departments to enter serial numbers from every gun used in a crime or seized by police into a law-enforcement database so that its original seller can be identified and the information shared with other departments.

“Because this information is not shared, we actually have no idea how many crime guns were recovered in Pennsylvania last year, and that makes us all less safe,” Shapiro said.

The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and criminologists say it is important to trace the source of every gun used in a crime because that can provide leads to gun traffickers or illegal sellers and purchasers.

Pennsylvania law requires guns used in crimes to be traced, and information can be submitted various ways to the federal agency.

But only about 433 out of about 1,100 law enforcement agencies in Pennsylvania are using eTrace, an internet-based system that allows law enforcement agencies to submit traces to the ATF, the attorney general’s office said.

Of those, just 63 allow other police departments to see what they submit to the system, the attorney general’s office said.

Don Robinson, the ATF special agent in charge of the Philadelphia Field Division, said finding the first retail purchaser is a valuable investigative lead.

“It provides us that initial information where we can go to find out where that gun started and move on from there,” Robinson said in the news conference with Shapiro.

Most guns used in crimes change hands multiple times, and a small number of firearms are used in a large number of crimes, Shapiro said.

Shapiro also said his office wants retailers to submit gun-sale records electronically to get rid of a police backlog of paper records that are waiting to be entered into a database.

That will allow law enforcement to more quickly trace guns used in crimes, Shapiro said.

One source of the guns is the theft of legal guns from homes and vehicles, and part of the initiative will be to emphasize safe gun storage, Shapiro’s office said.

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