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Project To Track Guns Reports Little Success

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Two years into a project designed to track how juveniles get their hands on guns they use in crimes, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms is reporting little success.

Joe Vince, the chief of the ATF's firearms-enforcement division, cited inadequate reporting by local law-enforcement agencies as the main stumbling block to the tracking project.

But James O. Pasco Jr., the executive director of the Nashville, Tenn.-based National Fraternal Order of Police, which represents 250,000 police officers nationwide, said many local departments likely are not aware of the ATF's tracking project.

"A tremendous amount of information is flowing over [police officers'] desks and through squad rooms, and it's difficult to be aware of all the special projects that are going on," he said. But he added that most police officers probably would support the effort if they knew about it.

The bureau's effort to find out how and where young people under age 18 obtain weapons has become more pressing in recent years as the percentage of juvenile crimes that involve guns has increased. In 1976, 59 percent of adolescents who committed murderyes used a handgun, according to a U.S. Department of Justice report released last year. By 1991, that figure had increased to 78 percent, the report said. (See Education Week, Sept. 20, 1995.)

However, an ATF status report on the tracking project shows little success in pinning down where juveniles obtain the guns they use in the commission of crimes. For example, from November 1993 to June 1994, the agency was able to trace about 80,000 illegal-weapons cases, but only slightly more than 3,000 were reported as involving juveniles.

This number reflects a small portion of the juvenile crimes committed using guns because few local agencies distinguished between juveniles and adults in reports. "We knew we weren't capturing everything," Mr. Vince said.

Federal law prohibits anyone under age 18 from carrying a handgun and authorizes criminal penalties for anyone who supplies a minor with a handgun. Half of the states prohibit an adolescent from using a firearm without adult supervision.

Pilot Effort Proposed

In an effort to improve the weapons-tracking project, ATF agents will unveil a pilot program this month designed to improve coordination between local law-enforcement officials and the bureau.

The new system, which would be installed in 16 undisclosed sites across the country, would coordinate information on guns, bullets, and shell casings involved in crimes through a computer network that would be directly linked to a federal database.

Currently, many law-enforcement agencies examine individual firearms and relay the detailed information to other agencies by telephone.

The computer network also would contain information on illegal gun dealers. Additional ATF agents would be stationed at the 16 sites to investigate gun traffickers soon after they were identified. They would focus on individuals thought to be sources of guns for juveniles, Mr. Vince said.

If the pilot project receives congressional approval, it would start sometime next year, Mr. Vince said.

Gun Sources

The ATF data, though incomplete, reveal some clues about how juvenile offenders acquire weapons to commit violent crimes, from burglary to homicide.

The status report says the most common source of guns for juveniles, at 27 percent, was a parent or guardian.

In 22 percent of the cases, the juvenile stole the gun, and in 16 percent of the cases, the gun was purchased from a source other than a licensed gun shop, according to the report. In 15 percent of the cases, the juvenile took the gun from home without the knowledge of a parent or guardian.

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