Suspicious New York police searched a young man who was hanging around a park. They found him armed with a Lorcin .380, a potent firearm.
It turned out the Lorcin's buyer was not the man arrested but someone else, an Alexander Callahan, who had bought five other guns on the same day in Georgia. The multiple purchase alerted the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) that Mr. Callahan might be involved in gun running.
What tripped up Callahan and two other cohorts was the New Jersey/New York Regional Crime Gun Center, a new ATF weapon in the battle against illegal handguns.
The center, the first of its kind in the United States, is specifically aimed at tracing weapons and looking at patterns involving guns used in crimes.
Officially opened April 13, it provides information to agents trying to crack armed drug gangs. It maps all the sites where guns have been picked up by police. And it centralizes information so police departments can move more quickly.
"Clearly we see cases being solved," says John Magaw, director of the ATF. "The complex and far-reaching cases that will emerge from this expanded yet concentrated effort will have a notable impact on violent crime."
ATF officials are now talking about setting up another center in the Washington, D.C., area to serve police departments in Virginia, Maryland, and the District.
"My vision is that in three or four years we will see it around the country," says Mr. Magaw.
The latest push is part of a renewed effort by ATF to track guns used in crimes.
Three years ago, ATF began a program in 17 cities to trace every gun used by a youth to commit a crime. Now that program has been expanded to 37 cities. It's likely the system will be used to trace the handgun used in the Littleton, Colo., school shootings, since it's illegal for a youth to buy a handgun.
Antigun organizations applaud the effort, and take some credit for it.
"We have been pushing the ATF to trace more guns and follow the patterns of firearms movement," says Brian Siebel, a senior attorney with the Legal Action Project at the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence in Washington.
In Boston, tracing the sellers of handguns used in crime, says Mr. Siebel, has resulted in vigorous prosecutions over the past two years. As a result, he says, youth shooting deaths have declined dramatically.
Mr. Siebel says the information the ATF gathers on firearm movements might be used in the lawsuits filed against the gun manufacturers. Several cities, such as Chicago and Bridgeport, Conn., are focusing on the distribution methods used by the industry.
ATF officials expect the new center will also aid local police in finding patterns involving guns used in crimes. For example, a local precinct commander can pull up information showing where guns have been found.
"So if officers get a call to go to that area for a crime or disruption, it puts them on a completely different guard and maybe they will send three or four officers instead of one or two," says Magaw.
THE New York regional operation is mainly a computer center in a windowless office. Once a day, members of the New York National Guard pick up data on the latest guns seized by the New York Police Department.
This information, such as serial numbers and where the gun was found, is entered into the ATF computers. The data are then sent to the ATF's national gun-tracing center in Falling Water, W.Va.
In the case of the Lorcin, a further computer search discovered that Callahan and his cohorts, including ring leader Lucinda Weatherspoon, had bought a total of 93 guns over six months.
On the gang's next trip to Georgia, a tracking device was attached to Ms. Weatherspoon's Jeep. ATF tracked the vehicle up the East Coast and arrested the gang with 12 guns and 2,000 rounds of ammunition as they entered New York. All three pleaded guilty to federal firearms violations.
So far, the police have recovered 11 firearms sold by the gang. Six of those guns were in the possession of juveniles.
There are times, however, when the ATF computers don't find a match. Magaw says this is because of "loopholes" in the laws that allow individuals to buy guns at flea markets and gun shows without registering them. Recently, President Clinton, in his weekly radio address, called on Congress to enact legislation shutting down such venues.
A spokesman for the National Rifle Association (NRA) says the organization has no statement at this time in light of the shootings in Colorado.