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BREAKING NEWS: Trump is fine after gunshots fired at his Pennsylvania rally

Here's what the ATF director says the agency is doing to stop the flow of illegal guns in the U.S.

ATF director Steven Dettelbach sits in a conference room. A sign reading "ATF Tampa Field Division" is in the background.
Stephanie Colombini
Like some other parts of the U.S., Florida has a "significant" gun trafficking problem, said ATF director Steven Dettelbach. He talked about how the agency partners with local law enforcement to stop the flow of illegal guns.

During a recent visit to Tampa, ATF director Steven Dettelbach discussed the threat of machine gun conversion devices and how the agency is fighting gun trafficking.

More than 100 people in the U.S. die every day from guns and hundreds more are injured, according to federal data.

While many of these shootings involve legally purchased guns, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives warns stolen weapons and modified guns are becoming more prevalent in crime.

The ATF released a report earlier this year that found the number of devices law enforcement recovered that can convert firearms into fully automatic machine guns has soared in recent years.

From 2017 to 2021, 5,454 devices were recovered – a 570% increase from the 814 recovered between 2012 and 2016.

Some criminals are 3D printing these devices, according to Steven Dettelbach, director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

During a recent visit to Tampa, he talked about the problem with WUSF’s Stephanie Colombini, and about efforts to curb gun violence.

How do these devices make guns even more deadly, and what is ATF doing to get them off the streets?

A semiautomatic weapon, you have to pull the trigger every single time to shoot a round. A fully automatic weapon means you pull the trigger one time, and the gun keeps firing over and over again – some of these weapons, you know, 1,000, or 1,200 rounds every minute. So think about that. That's an incredibly dangerous situation.

You look at what happened in the Las Vegas massacre at that country music concert. But also you look at what's happening on the street every day, these conversion devices are being used to hurt people in our communities, police officers are getting killed and injured by these conversion devices. So we are literally doing things every day to try to stop them.

One of the things we're doing is we formed something at ATF called the Emerging Threats Unit. The Emerging Threats Unit combines agents, forensic examiners, firearms examiners, industry operations investigators and support people into one centralized unit to try to focus on how we can do better to stop these new technologies like the 3D printing technologies that are being used by criminals to print these little, little plastic devices that you drop into a weapon that are deadly.

We're doing education. Some of these machine gun conversion devices are very hard to recognize. So we'll do trainings, and police chiefs will get back to me and say, “Hey, you know, after our training, I went to my own property room, weapons we've already seized and I said [to staff], ‘Hey, check and see whether we've got any machine guns in here.’” Time after time, they come back and they say, “You know what? These several firearms are converted machine guns. And we didn't know that when we seized them because they're making these new devices in different ways.”

So we're trying to specialize ourselves so that we can get ahead of the curve. And we're trying to work with our state and local partners to make sure they have the best information to protect Americans.

ATF director touts rule cracking down on 'ghost guns' while in Tampa
The rule aims to help law enforcement trace these homemade weapons when used in crimes. The U.S. Supreme Court recently allowed ATF to resume enforcing the restrictions while a legal challenge continues.
Firearms and components of firearms spread out on a table

Stopping gun trafficking is another priority for your agency. Talk more about that.

We want to get the trigger-pullers off the street, and we want to try to slow down the illegal flow of firearms to the black market to people who want to hurt other people; people who aren't allowed to have guns. So firearms trafficking investigations is something we spend a lot of time discussing using crime gun intelligence, which is using all the data that we have out there to identify the worst of the worst.

Just recently here for instance, in an eight county area around Orlando, we prosecuted a case where multiple individuals were moving AR and AK style weapons, machine gun conversion devices, silencers, you name it. So we try to focus on these firearms trafficking rings and to use the tools that Congress just gave us to get those people off the streets.

And what are those tools?

Last year, Congress passed what's called the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which has all sorts of things in there dealing with gun violence. But the ones that applied most to the ATF were two new criminal laws that allowed us to bring cases federally on what's called firearms trafficking and on straw purchasing.

Straw purchasing is basically, one person buying a gun for somebody else. And usually the reason they're buying it for somebody else is because that person ain't allowed to buy it themselves, or because they don't want it to be traced back to them at the point of sale, because they're going to do something bad with it.

So Congress passed the first ever standalone straw purchasing criminal law, and then they also allowed us to do firearms trafficking federally without using other statutes to try to fit a square peg in a round hole. So we're bringing those cases, we have prosecuted nationwide, well over 100 people just in that first period of the law, and we are doing more and more right here in Florida.

I talked about some of the new statutes Congress has given us, that’s helpful. To identify people, we also use crime gun intelligence. We have a system called NIBIN, the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network, which basically allows us to run a criminal history of a crime gun, a shell casing – we get one, run it through a system, compare it to a database so we can see everywhere that gun was used to commit a crime.

We also use tracing, so when there is a crime gun, your local sheriff or police department will submit it to ATF, we will run a trace on it and we’ll be able to figure out the first retail sale of that crime gun, which can be a huge clue. Another thing we’re doing nationally is use touch DNA. We’re better than ever at being able to compare and extract the DNA from firearms and cartridge casings in order to match a crime.

Anything else you can say about how Florida, you know, its geographic location, or just it's easier to get a gun here than some other states – how can that affect your work?

Well, look, I mean, Florida has a significant violent crime problem, as many states do. And Florida has a significant firearms trafficking problem. We are working every day to try to deal with that.

We at the Department of Justice have formed firearms trafficking strike forces, which are regional, which try to tie together based on data, the various places where firearms are trafficked from, to where they’re trafficked to. So if people are trafficking firearms from a state like Florida to a place like New York, right, we try to work together across borders, state, local and federal law enforcement to try to identify those illegal trafficking rings and hold them accountable.

There are also the problems of gang violence and extremism that plague everywhere. Just last week [Aug. 9], a member of the Unforgiven gang right here in Florida on a case we did with local partners was sentenced to 21 years in prison. This is a white supremacist gang which uses firearms and kidnapping and violence to try to target minorities and people they perceive as not like them. Working with the Pasco Sheriff’s Office we were able to do an incredible case with them to try to crack down on this kind of violence too.

So we’re working really in every area you can think of where violent crime is affecting people in Florida to try to work with state and local partners to clamp down on it.

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.