In this age of databases, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives should have needed nothing more than the serial number to immediately identify who purchased the AR-15 style rifle used to murder seven people and wound 60 more after the Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, Illinois.
But just as a skewed interpretation of the Second Amendment makes obtaining such weapons much too easy, those who fear the government is going to grab their guns have codified their paranoia into federal law and made tracing far too difficult.
Along with a little bit of luck.
By reputation, U.S. government agents tend to be so loath to work weekends and holidays that street cops grumble about “federal Fridays,” when there is nary a fed to be seen after 2 p.m.
ATF has long been a notable exception and proved it anew this past holiday weekend in the aftermath of the shooting 20 miles north of Chicago.
The murder weapon had been wrapped in a red blanket and dropped from the roof of a cosmetics store on the parade route. ATF agents responded to the scene as representatives of the only law enforcement agency with the authority to trace firearms. But their powers are limited by a compromise in the Gun Control Act of 1968 that prohibits the government from establishing a centralized registry of gun owners.
The technology of 2022 could enable an ATF agent to just enter a serial number in his cellphone and instantly come up with the owner’s name. But there is no such database to access.
The best the agents could do was contact ATF’s National Tracing Center in Martinsburg, West Virginia. The people there began a process they perform an average of 8,000 times daily, nearly 3 million times a year, virtually all of them initiated by a crime in this violent and gun-obsessed nation.
The agents in Illinois made this request an “urgent trace.” Their counterparts at the tracing center immediately set to work. They began by contacting the manufacturer, which had records leading to the federally licensed retailer who had sold the gun.
But there the trail reverted to a time before computers. The buyer’s name is by law recorded only on a Form 4473, a three-page document filled out by hand and signed by both the buyer and the dealer. The buyer is required to check “yes” or “no” next to such questions as whether he or she has ever been convicted of a felony or committed to a mental institution. A “yes” results in no gun.
When a sale goes through, the dealer is required to keep the 4473s on the premises but prohibited from entering them into a database. That means the only way for the ATF to access the information is for the dealer to actually be at his or her place of business and pull the file.
“Then it’s up to our agents to find the proprietor,” Kimberly Nerheim, spokeswoman for the ATF Chicago field office, told The Daily Beast while describing the process in general terms. “It’s all very paper-intensive.”
Had the dealer been unreachable, the investigation would have been stalled despite ATF’s best efforts. The agents got lucky, and within hours of the shooting they had contacted the dealer, who located a 4473 form that had the corresponding serial number entered in Section A on the first page. Section B had the buyer’s handwritten last name, Crimo, followed by the first, Robert.
The agents gave the police the name, and Robert Crimo III was arrested soon after.
“The weapon led to him directly,” Deputy Chief Christopher Covelli of the Lake County Major Crime Task Force said at a press briefing on Tuesday, after Crimo had been charged with seven counts of murder.
Covelli reported that Crimo had two prior dealings with the Highland Park police. One was in April 2019 after a report he had tried to attempt suicide a week before. Covelli said police spoke to Crimo and to his parents.
“The matter was handled by mental health professionals at that time,” Covelli said. “It was a mental health issue being handled by those professionals.”
Highland Park police were back at the home in September 2019, after someone in the family reported that Crimo had spoken of “killing everybody.” The responding officers had confiscated 16 knives, a dagger, and a sword from Crimo. But nobody filed a formal complaint and there were no grounds to arrest him, and committing him to a psychiatric facility “wasn’t an option at that time.”
“But nonetheless, Highland Park Police did notify the state police,” Covelli reported.
At another point, Covelli noted that in order to purchase a gun in Illinois, you need a state Firearm Owners Identification, or FOID card.
“That’s a process that’s solely managed by the state police, and I am not able to speak to that,” he said.
Covelli also reported that Crimo purchased both his rifles after the September 2019 incident. He could only have done so with a FOID card issued by the state police.
Covelli further reported that Crimo bought the weapons when he was under 21, an age when those with even just a misdemeanor conviction are generally barred.
The federal government’s minimum age for purchasing a firearm is 18. But Illinois requires those under 21 to get the written consent of a parent or legal guardian, who must also obtain a FOID card.
The state police say the father, Robert Crimo II, signed the form enabling Robert Crimo III to obtain two rifles, even though the son was said to have attempted suicide and to have threatened the family.
The father could not be reached for comment. The state police issued a press release.
“In September 2019, ISP received a Clear and Present Danger report on the subject from the Highland Park Police Department. The report was related to threats the subject made against his family. There were no arrests made in the September 2019 incident and no one, including family, was willing to move forward on a complaint nor did they subsequently provide information on threats or mental health that would have allowed law enforcement to take additional action. Additionally, no Firearms Restraining Order was filed, nor any order of protection.
“At that time of the September 2019 incident, the subject did not have a FOID card to revoke or a pending FOID application to deny. Once this determination was made, Illinois State Police involvement with the matter was concluded.
“Then, in December of 2019, at the age of 19, the individual applied for a FOID card. The subject was under 21 and the application was sponsored by the subject’s father. Therefore, at the time of FOID application review in January of 2020, there was insufficient basis to establish a clear and present danger and deny the FOID application.”
All of which comprises further evidence that such weapons are too easy for young man reported to be a Clear and Present Danger to obtain.
At least it should be easier to trace them.
And the next time a right-wing politician like Ohio Republican Senate candidate J.D. Vance talks about defunding ATF, remember what those agents did on the Fourth of July with determination and a bit of luck.
“We’re super proud of that,” Nerheim of ATF told The Daily Beast.