The Feds Have Come to Chicago—With a Van That Tracks Guns

A high-tech upgrade to the ATF’s outdated gun tracing system hits the streets

A woman works inside the ATF's new gun forensics mobile lab, which is currently in Chicago.Associated Press

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.

Six months after President Donald Trump threatened to send the feds to Chicago to “fix the horrible ‘carnage’ going on,” city officials announced on Monday that they’ve been getting some more federal crime-fighting aid in the form of a mobile firearms forensics van that’s been roaming the streets for three weeks. The van, which the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) first rolled out in May, makes it possible to immediately test guns and shell casings at a crime scene. It’s aimed at “helping police departments around the country,” an ATF spokesperson told Mother Jones.

The new van is a high-tech upgrade to the ATF’s gun tracing system: It can match a gun on the spot, while sending evidence to a crime lab can take at least 24 hours, often longer. Even as the agency is asked to trace more than 350,000 weapons a year, the gun lobby has successfully managed to keep the agency in the last century—often relying on analog systems to track down guns used in crimes. As an agency spokesman told Mother Jones‘ Bryan Schatz when he visited the National Tracing Center in West Virginia, most people have no idea how laborious the actual process is: 

“I was watching one of the acronym shows, NCIS or CSI or one of those, and there’s a body on the ground and a gun in the bushes,” Ray recounts. “The detective runs up to it, pulls out his iPhone, and takes a picture of the gun, and it instantly pops up on a screen who bought the gun, where he lives, what his criminal history is. Yeah, that’s exactly how it works. ‘Go get the microfilm! We gotta get this guy cuffed!’ Six hours later—zzzzzzzzz.”

The plan is for the ATF van to move from city to city and spend a few weeks in each one. Before coming to Chicago, the van spent May in Baltimore, another city Trump has chided in the past. Despite the tech upgrade, in the three weeks that the van has spent in the Windy City, it hasn’t helped police make any arrests, according to the department Superintendent Eddie Johnson. Nonetheless, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) says that he’s “glad the feds have arrived” and that the city “needs the van full time.” Durbin, Johnson, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel plan on asking Attorney General Jeff Sessions to keep the van in Chicago until Labor Day. The ATF has not yet responded to a request for more information on the factors it is using to determine which cities the van will assist.

IT'S NOT THAT WE'RE SCREWED WITHOUT TRUMP:

"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. It's our first time asking for an outpouring of support since screams of FAKE NEWS and so much of what Trump stood for made everything we do so visceral. Like most newsrooms, we face incredibly hard budget realities, and it's unnerving needing to raise big money when traffic is down.

So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

payment methods

IT'S NOT THAT WE'RE SCREWED WITHOUT TRUMP:

"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate