‘Our response calls for an all-hands-on-deck approach’: Pa. State Police join AG Shapiro’s new initiative to trace gun sales

By: - July 25, 2019 6:46 pm

Attorney General Josh Shapiro announces a partnership with the Pennsylvania State Police to trace crime guns outside the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Thursday, July 25, 2019 (Capital-Star photo).

Surrounded by law enforcement officials from the county to federal level, Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced the addition of the Pennsylvania State Police to a growing network of allies with an aim to track guns used in crimes.

“Our response calls for an all-hands-on-deck approach,” Shapiro said Wednesday, of addressing the state’s 1,500 gun deaths a year. “All levels of law enforcement must work together to share resources and expertise.”

With the addition of state troopers, Pennsylvania’s three biggest police agencies are now part of the Track + Trace Initiative. The Philadelphia and Pittsburgh police departments are also involved with the effort, which Shapiro launched two weeks ago in Erie.

Since 2007, Pennsylvania’s police departments have been required by state law to report the serial number of guns used in crimes to a statewide law enforcement database.

However, many agencies are not reporting the guns they find. Shapiro said just a third of Pennsylvania’s 1,200 law enforcement agencies are sending reports to the Attorney General’s Office.

When he took over as the state’s chief law enforcement officer in 2017, Shapiro said even the AG’s office wasn’t putting guns it seized into the electronic database, so the lapse is “not in any way, shape, or form a slap at any other law enforcement agency.”

Instead, Shapiro said there has been “a bit of surprise” from police chiefs who are informed that their departments are not obeying the law, followed by “an immediate desire to be on board with this.”

But even if more police departments start sharing info, there’s still a second problem. While gun shops must report their sales to the State Police, these transactions are often reported with paper records.

Those are mailed to the State Police and then manually added to an electronic database — requiring time and staff. There is currently a nine- to 12-month backlog of paper forms waiting to be entered, according to State Police Major Douglas Burig.

Shapiro said the initiative will ask private gun sellers to electronically send firearm sale records to the State Police. Dick’s Sporting Goods, headquartered outside of Pittsburgh, has already agreed to use electronic reporting, Shapiro added.

The attorney general said that Dick’s example is causing other retailers to take notice and step up. He expects more announcements in the coming weeks.

By completing the database, state law enforcement can undertake more gun traces with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.

By following a gun’s serial number, police can identify where a gun was originally purchased and by who. This can uncover straw purchases, or when someone legally purchases a gun then illegally transfers it to someone who cannot own one.

Don Robinson, the ATF’s special agent in charge of its Philadelphia field office, said the agency ran 12,000 gun traces in Pennsylvania last year.

“We’re constantly working with law enforcement agencies to get that number up,” Robinson said.

Shapiro said Wednesday he hadn’t found any resistance to the plan, just questions.

Kim Stolfer, executive director of Firearms Owners Against Crime, said he was supportive but skeptical of the plan.

“My question is what’s going to compel them to follow the law now, or follow the orders of an attorney general, when they [already] haven’t been following the law?” Stolfer asked.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.