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Connecting the Dots is Ideastream Public Media's ongoing project to highlight connections between race and health. The initiative is currently focused on the gun violence plaguing many Northeast Ohio neighborhoods.

DOJ launches Cleveland-based gun tracking hub to reduce violent crime

Handguns are displayed at a pawn shop Monday, July 18, 2022, in Auburn, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
"The strategy works," said Steven Dettelbach, director of the U.S. ATF. "In Cleveland, homicides with a firearm are now down more than 33% year to date. That's part of what our ability to quote follow the gun can help accomplish."

A new effort to reduce gun violence in Northeast Ohio is underway as Attorney General Merrick B. Garland announced Tuesday the launch of a Cleveland-based research center that will track weapons used in violent crimes to disrupt and prevent future gun violence.

"No one in this country should have to live in fear of gun violence," Garland said during a news conference in Cleveland announcing the center. "No family and no community should have to grieve the loss of their loved ones to senseless violence. That is why we are here today. The Northeast Ohio Crime Gun Intelligence Center will help us leverage our partnerships and technological innovation to solve gun crimes and save lives."

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the centers are "centralized law enforcement hubs that focus exclusively on investigating and preventing gun violence in local communities." The agency added that these centers use "cutting-edge technology, which feed into nationwide databases, to rapidly develop and pursue investigative leads that drive case clearance rates up — which in turn drive violent crime rates down."

Garland said that with violent crimes, time is of the essence and these centers help address that issue.

"All of us on this stage know that when it comes to investigating gun crimes, every day matters," he said. "Every day, another lead can run dry. Every day, a repeat shooter may shatter another family and another community with this siege."

Garland said before a similar center opened in Columbus, it took between 40 and 60 days to add a shell casing found at a crime scene there to national tracking databases. Now, he said, it takes two days.

In Cleveland, and at the Cincinnati and Columbus-based centers, firearm evidence examiners, intelligence analysts and investigators work to collect, analyze and share information about guns used in violent crimes. According to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosive's website, these centers also use the federal government's National Integrated Ballistic Information Network, which automates ballistics evaluations and provides investigative leads in a timely manner. The agency said NIBIN is the only interstate automated ballistic imaging network in operation in the United States and is available to most major population centers in the country.

The Northeast Ohio Crime Gun Intelligence Center is the third such center in the state after Cincinnati and Columbus. Plans for such a center have been in the works since at least last year, according to Steven Dettelbach, director of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. At the time, Dettelbach said the majority of violent crimes in Cleveland were committed by a relatively small group of individuals and tracking their weapons would help lead to their arrest and a resulting drop in crime rates.

Dettelbach said during the news conference that using weapons tracking has already shown results in Cleveland.

"The strategy works," he said. "In Cleveland, homicides with a firearm are now down more than 33% year to date. That's part of what our ability to, quote, follow the gun can help accomplish."

This announcement came the same day U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advisory on the risks from gun violence, the first such advisory in the office's history. The Office of the Surgeon General reported that firearm-related injuries have become the leading cause of death for U.S. children and adolescents ages 1 to 19 since 2020, surpassing motor vehicle crashes, cancer and drug overdose and poisoning. The report also found that in 2022, 48,204 people died from firearm‑related injuries, including suicides, homicides and unintentional deaths. This is over 8,000 more lives lost than in 2019 and over 16,000 more lives lost than in 2010, the Surgeon General's office found.

In 2023, the ATF also detailed the growing scope of the gun violence problem in a report, the first of its kind in 20 years. That report, which analyzed data from 2017 through 2021, concluded thatstolen guns, untraceable weapons and other deadly devices were becoming more prevalent in U.S. gun crimes.

The report found that the number of suspected ghost guns, privately made firearms, recovered by law enforcement agencies and sent to the ATF for tracing and tracking "increased by 1,083% from 2017 (1,629) to 2021 (19,273)." The ATF said those weapons are particularly tough to track, given that they have no serial numbers or other markings for tracing.

The ATF also found that 54% of traced crime guns were recovered by law enforcement more than three years after their purchase. Those guns were legally purchased, but were later used in crimes, the report indicated. Additionally, local police reported a shrinking turnaround time for a legally purchased gun to be used in a crime over that same period, the report said.

The ATF said at least a million legally purchased firearms were stolen between 2017 and 2021. The number is likely higher as federal law doesn't require individual gun owners to report the loss or theft of their firearm to police, the agency said.

Stephen Langel is a health reporter with Ideastream Public Media's engaged journalism team.