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Virginia is test state for program that shares gun data

September 16, 2013 | Virginia News

News Image Test succeeds in state, and authorities plan to expand federal program elsewhere

BY MARK BOWES | Richmond Times-Dispatch

Virginia has become the test state for a planned nationally linked program that will allow every law enforcement agency in the commonwealth — if they choose to participate — instant access to a shared database of records on recovered crime guns and investigative traces of those weapons.

In the eight weeks since the program was launched, 25 of Virginia's 352 state and local law enforcement agencies have signed agreements to share crime gun trace data with their participating state colleagues through an enhancement of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ eTrace system, an Internet-based firearms tracing and analysis initiative.

The shared information can help authorities link a suspect to a firearm in a criminal investigation, identify potential gun traffickers and straw purchasers, and detect intrastate patterns regarding the sources and types of weapons used in crimes.

“It’s basically a pay-to-play system,” said April Carroll of the ATF’s eTracing unit, in explaining how police agencies must share their data to receive information in return. “If you opt in, you have access to all the other pool of data for all the other agencies that have also chosen to opt in. So it’s reciprocal, and the data is immediately available and it’s instantaneous sharing.”

The Virginia initiative, which started in mid-July as a first-of-its-kind pilot program, is an expansion of the federal Electronic Tracing System based at the ATF’s National Tracing Center in Martinsburg, W.Va.

Authorities have deemed Virginia’s start a success and are in the planning stages of expanding the program to other states. Illinois and Maryland are next in line, Carroll said.

Once other states come online, participating law enforcement agencies could collectively share trace information well beyond their states’ borders. But for now, Virginia’s system is limited to in-state use.

“In the past, if a firearm was trafficked from Chesterfield into the city of Richmond, the city of Richmond and Chesterfield County may not know that that firearm had been trafficked from one jurisdiction to the next,” said Melissa Merola, resident agent in charge of the ATF’s central Virginia office. “So by the new opt-in (provision) that we share through our eTracing system, local agencies and state agencies can make choices and agree to share the data with one another.

“And it’s a free resource to every agency.” ...

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