The Houston-Area Crime Gun Intelligence Center

This sounds promising.

When Houston-area law enforcement officers announced in September that they recovered 79 guns during an investigation into a group of suspected gang members, they had a pretty good idea of how those guns had been used — but they didn’t know where they’d come from.

Prosecutors would later charge one suspect, Tyrone Raymond Bolton, with using a firearm to traffic drugs. Another, Vandross Bynum, allegedly brandished a gun during an unspecified “crime of violence,” according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas. Both acts were serious violations, earning the suspects charges in federal court, yet law enforcement still lacked a crucial piece of information that could help prevent future crimes.

At a press conference announcing the charges, there were “literally hundreds of years of law enforcement experience,” said Fred Milanowski, former special agent in charge of the Houston field division of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. “But nobody could definitively say exactly how those violent gangs got their hands on those 79 guns,” he added.

That may be about to change. By early 2024, ATF and other local law enforcement agencies will formally launch the Houston-Area Crime Gun Intelligence Center, an intelligence hub dedicated to collecting and analyzing data related to guns used in crimes.

Currently, ATF traces each of the roughly 12,000 crime guns recovered by law enforcement each year in the Houston metro area. But that data has never been collated and analyzed as a whole. Now, the Crime Gun Center’s team of 12 analysts, supplied by six local and federal agencies, will compile that trace data into a larger database – an effort already underway with the center currently in a “soft launch.”

Advocates and law enforcement officials hope this more robust approach to studying gun crime, which Milanowski called a “unique” supplement to existing efforts, will result in more muscular and targeted interventions.

“If we can commit more resources to gathering intelligence, digesting what is valuable and then going after it in an effective and efficient manner, then we’re really going to help reduce violent crime in Harris County,” said Daniel Dellasala, a lieutenant and commander of the Crime Scene Investigations Unit at the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, one of the center’s participating agencies.

Analysts will track the guns’ original purchaser, whether those purchasers ever sold the gun, and whether the purchasers or the buyers were ever involved with other guns recovered by law enforcement, among other factors. Collectively, this data will alert law enforcement to broader trends in how perpetrators of crime are sourcing their weapons – and support investigations on an individual level.

“Unless you have dedicated people that are just looking at this, that stuff just falls through the cracks at law enforcement,” Milanowski said. “They may not even be aware that their guns aren’t properly being traced, or they’re incompletely being traced. But these analysts now are looking at every gun that’s coming into the department.”

ATF is prohibited by provisions in a 2003 federal appropriations bill from sharing trace data with individuals or agencies outside law enforcement, according to the nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety. But law enforcement officials hope the data they collect will help them stop violent crime through internal data analysis, highlighting opportunities to intervene at the source and stymie the flow of weapons into criminal hands.

“As this project expands, we’re going to have two years’ worth of a really good dataset on how violent crews and gangs in the Houston metro area are getting their guns,” Milanowski said. “That just wouldn’t have been possible if there wasn’t a dedicated group of people looking at that crime gun intelligence.”

This sounds like an excellent idea, and I’m optimistic it will have a positive effect. It joins the new Houston gun violence tracker and the UTMB grant to study ways to reduce firearm violence as new tools in the kit for hopefully making some progress in this fight. The main question I have is why none of this had ever been done before. Some of that is national politics to be sure, but not all of it. Better late than never, but there’s a ton of ground to make up. I look forward to seeing what they can do.

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