Law enforcement agencies everywhere have the ubiquitous task of investigating and solving a multitude of crimes. More recently, though, as a greater emphasis has been placed on mitigating gun crimes, agencies across the United States have enlisted help from various sources. More and more agencies are standing up investigative groups or task forces explicitly designed to address the steep increase of firearm-related crimes outside traditional investigative units.

Regardless of what the unit is called, the primary focus is to emphasize taking a presumptive approach to gun crimes, using the philosophy that every gun has investigative value. This value comes from forensics, identifiable tool marks, ballistics, and law enforcement database queries. These categories, in totality, work in concert with each other to form the basis of giving investigative personnel a comprehensive overview of every firearm and fired cartridge recovered from crime scenes and used in ongoing criminal activity. 

This approach, coupled with the expansion of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN) and Crime Gun Intelligence Center (CGIC) programs, will enhance every investigative unit’s ability to solve a gun-related crime, in addition to allowing investigators within gun crimes units to identify and target offenders who arm themselves for the commission of crimes and the creation of fear. 

Establishing Best Practices

The current iteration of the NIBIN program is based on a series of prescribed tasks that encompass a comprehensive plan of action to identify and resolve gun crimes formally. Any agency willing to abide by the specified tasks proves their seriousness and commitment to finding the best possible solutions to solving gun crimes while enhancing the ability of their investigative staff. Thus giving them additional information to make intelligent decisions and actionable intelligence.

When I was practicing law enforcement, I toured multiple gun crime sites to implement the best possible practices and policies related to firearms processing and investigative follow-up. We partnered with the ATF, assisted in creating a multiagency task force, and regionalized our gun crime ballistic program. I traveled the country meeting with various CGIC personnel, brought back policies and procedures that worked the best, and incorporated them into our protocols.

It started with removing the ballistic matching program from the laboratory and putting it into the hands of investigative staff. Our stakeholders agreed that our partnership could be strengthened by eliminating a tool that offered exceptional value for the investigative team while not compromising the ability of the firearms examiners to review leads needed for confirmation. We later moved to the ATF’s NIBIN National Correlation and Training Center, which helped to increase acquisition returns within 24-48 hours.

To further increase the crime-fighting ability and intelligence gathering needed to mitigate gun crimes, we established a protocol to allow those investigators assigned to the gun crimes unit the ability to process firearms not designated for laboratory forensics. These checks included latent prints, swabs for DNA, and function tests (test fire) for a ballistic matching entry. The issuing County Attorney’s Office also approved this protocol, so there were no surprises when the case went to court.

We also required every detective to make a forensic decision on firearms contained within their cases. Before that, items in evidence would sit and wait for action. Too often, recovered items like fired cartridges or firearms would not be processed until much later. When this occurred, actionable intelligence was lost. Under this new way, the gun crimes unit would process everything unless specially requested not to. We also placed a mandatory requirement on collecting every recovered fired cartridge from the field for ballistic processing and eventually worked out the delivery of recovered fired cartridges several times a week from the evidence section, straight to the gun crimes ballistic matching processing facility.

A holistic approach to solving gun crimes was born through these processes, and the internal paradigm was shifted. 

Use of Technology

The mission of any gun-specific investigative group is to suppress and prevent firearms-related crime through effective enforcement of federal and state firearms laws. In partnership with the ATF, this philosophy is dedicated to investigating prohibited firearms possessors, armed criminals, illegal firearms trafficking, violent organizations that misuse firearms, illegal FFLs, and the widespread use of ballistic matching technology to enhance every gun-related crime.

Ballistic intelligence is paramount; however, it is not the only meaningful tool. Comprehensive tracing of all firearms recovered is a must as well. Finding information on the first purchaser or the last person in possession helps leverage the ballistic knowledge and leads to greater case solvability.

Now add a layered approach by using a data-sharing application that allows different agencies to read and share RMS reports. You have a comprehensive process and greater scope of impact. Some data-sharing applications, like FINDER, even can pull any disparate law enforcement system into one platform, where public records, facial recognition, Gun Crime management, bulletins, pawn data, and crime mapping can all be used in conjunction with any investigation.

Law enforcement must actively seek out technology that expands their toolset and provides the confidence for use in every case.

Data Sharing

Individuals are not well suited to search thousands of lines of printed data, identify commonalities and relationships, and then collate that data into valuable and actionable information. Computers and software better perform this type of detailed analysis and comparison. The current process that can take an investigator several hours to conduct can be electronically processed in seconds through a data-sharing program like FINDER. Electronic analysis should also improve the accuracy of the information and uncover data relationships that would not be identifiable by a human operator. The desired effect of this type of application is to improve every aspect of the investigative process, increase efficiencies, offer more excellent officer safety and reduce crime.

Moreover, accessing multijurisdictional RMS reports is a force multiplier for any law enforcement agency. Having the names, addresses, numbers, and historical information allows for a greater understanding of how the puzzle pieces fit for an investigation. No longer is data siloed or out of reach from surrounding jurisdictions. A data-sharing application like FINDER offers any law enforcement agency the ability to gain critical information related to their investigations immediately.

Real-World Scenario

Imagine this scenario unfolding in real-time at your agency and aided by FINDER:

One of your officers gets into an officer-involved shooting. The suspect is learned to have been a felon and should not have been in possession of a firearm. The fired suspect cartridges are linked to another recent investigation via ballistic matching. Your investigators run the recovered serial number through a trace as an urgent priority and discover it was initially associated with a local gun shop. They collaborate with ATF and obtain the purchase form to determine who the purchaser of the firearm was. They knock on that person’s door only to discover that the gun was sold in a private sale to someone else.

Using that name, they start working through RMS reports and public records data, where they obtain a recent address and phone number. They also find one case report indicating that the new lead was previously stopped and found to have had ammunition on their person. Using a located phone number, they contact and determine the address is correct. They also discover a driver’s license photo of the person and cross-reference that with open-source facial identification to find a photograph of the lead at a party with additional family members. After a short surveillance operation, they locate the purchaser and interview them.

It is determined that the purchaser, also a felon, bought the suspect firearm and gave it to a family member, who used it against the police. Using additional RMS reports, your investigators have information that narcotics are also associated with the person of interest. A search warrant is obtained, and additional weapons, money, and firearms are recovered. Even better is that when they used a picture of the suspect to search through a facial recognition program, they located an open-source photograph of both family members together at a public event, where a firearm was seen.

Investigative staff can now charge the purchaser with illegal possession of firearms, illegal (straw) purchase of a weapon, and other felony offenses, including facilitation. The prosecution has the ballistic information to make additional connections and charges, the gun trace form showing actual firearm possession, the RMS reports documenting the history of felony offenses, and the search warrant.


To have an even greater impact, a program like our FINDER data sharing application, applied to this scenario, provides a substantial return in actionable intelligence and investigates lead generation. Imagine combining ballistic leads into a single platform that allows for display on a map while researching RMS reports or querying public records or DMV data. FINDER is the perfect complement to investigations and a strategic tool for enhancing any gun crime program. Built as a data-sharing platform, FINDER has transformed into one of the most robust lead generation tools available.

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