Google for guns: How the state created its own system to trace weapons involved in crimes
For a police detective in Illinois trying to trace the origins of a gun used in a crime, it can feel a bit like traveling back in time, and not just because it's a history project of sorts.
Instead of quickly accessing searchable online databases to track a weapon, police must obtain paper records and spreadsheets from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, then leaf through them hoping to find the information they're seeking -- the result of federal law that says the ATF can keep such records but not digitize them.
As the head of the Illinois State Police noted this week, it's more 1960s than 2020s.
"The process for these law enforcement agencies is really onerous," Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul said. "This has meant valuable time lost."
That's about to change.
Raoul, state law enforcement leaders and gun safety advocates on Wednesday announced the launch of the Crime Gun Connect platform, which gives police across the state online access to a database of more than 100,000 gun trace records from nearly 200 law enforcement agencies in Illinois dating back to 2009.
Working with the group Everytown for Gun Safety, Raoul's office hired data scientists to create a platform they say will modernize and simplify the process of tracing a gun used in a crime. Rather than sorting through piles and piles of paper records, police will be able to enter basic information into a search box to immediately get records relevant to their investigation.
The platform also incorporates mapping technology to build a nationwide picture of where guns used in crimes originate, and uses algorithms to identify firearms most likely to have been trafficked or straw-purchased, meaning someone bought it on behalf of another person who cannot legally purchase a gun.
"We've built a system that allows law enforcement to search for information the same way we all Google for information every single day," said Adam Braun, executive deputy attorney general.
Accessing the portal costs local police departments nothing, other than a pledge to share their information with the database and the ATF.
"Oftentimes, agencies faced with the most challenges are not able to adequately address those challenges, not because the resources aren't available, not because they don't want to, but because of financial constraints," said Chief Mitchell Davis, of South suburban Hazel Crest. "This removes that barrier and provides an additional avenue for ensuring equitable policing in all communities."
Why it matters
Tracing the origins of a gun used in a crime isn't just an academic exercise. Police say knowing where those weapons come from, and hopefully cutting off their flow to criminals, is essential to reducing gun violence.
Studies have shown that as many as 60% of guns recovered during criminal investigations in Chicago are brought to the city from out of state.
During a news conference Wednesday announcing Gun Crime Connect, Braun ran a sample search showing how nine guns recovered by police in Chicago were traced back to one person who bought them over a 19-day period in Indianapolis.
"To us that's a clear indication of someone who's engaged in trafficking and straw purchasing," he said.
Raoul said those traffickers know the person who ultimately gets the gun intends harm.
"We're not only targeting the shooter but also the people getting the shooter the gun," he said.
One more thing
While the tracing capabilities of Gun Crime Connect are exclusive to law enforcement, there is a public element to the portal. Visit https://tinyurl.com/259xh6eu or click the portal's link at the Illinois Attorney General website, illinoisattorneygeneral.gov, to see current and historical data on gun violence, information about where firearms used in crimes originate, a county-by-county breakdown of gun recoveries and more.
Leave it to the pros
Setting off fireworks outside your home this holiday weekend may seem like a fun tradition, but it could be a costly one -- especially if you're living in Aurora.
Police there say they'll fine those caught launching fireworks as much as $1,000 this year as part of their "If You Light It, We Will Write It!" campaign.
Even if you don't personally light the fuse, you can be fined. Officials say they'll also ticket those who allow others to set off fireworks on their property. That includes landlords.
Mayor Richard Irvin called for the city to re-examine its fireworks regulations last year, saying there had been a substantial increase in complaints. The city council approved harsher fines in September.
Before the changes, people could be fined as little as $50. Fines now start at $250. One alderman wanted it higher.
"$250 to me is a bit low. People spend $3,000 to $4,000 for fireworks," Alderman Juany Garza said at a committee meeting last fall.
Police say you should call 911 if fireworks are endangering you or your property. But you can also file an online complaint at aurora-il.org/Report/Fireworks, or call the city's customer service center at (630) 256-4636.
Aurora cops aren't the only ones cracking down this year. Elgin police officers have been walking city neighborhoods in recent weeks to explain the law and possible penalties.
The city also sent letters to people previously convicted of fireworks offenses, reminding them to not do so again.
"We're just wanting to be proactive," said Sgt. Mike Martino, the department's public information officer. "We understand that we are not going to be able to stop everyone from shooting off these fireworks."
Elgin had more than 800 complaints in 2021. From June 1 to 20 this year, there have been 95 complaints.
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