When Houston-area law enforcement officers announced in September that they recovered 79 guns during an investigation into a group of suspected gang members, they had a pretty good idea of how those guns had been used — but they didn’t know where they’d come from. 

Prosecutors would later charge one suspect, Tyrone Raymond Bolton, with using a firearm to traffic drugs. Another, Vandross Bynum, allegedly brandished a gun during an unspecified “crime of violence,” according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas. Both acts were serious violations, earning the suspects charges in federal court, yet law enforcement still lacked a crucial piece of information that could help prevent future crimes. 

At a press conference announcing the charges, there were “literally hundreds of years of law enforcement experience,” said Fred Milanowski, former special agent in charge of the Houston field division of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. “But nobody could definitively say exactly how those violent gangs got their hands on those 79 guns,” he added. 

That may be about to change. By early 2024, ATF and other local law enforcement agencies will formally launch the Houston-Area Crime Gun Intelligence Center, an intelligence hub dedicated to collecting and analyzing data related to guns used in crimes. 

Currently, ATF traces each of the roughly 12,000 crime guns recovered by law enforcement each year in the Houston metro area. But that data has never been collated and analyzed as a whole. Now, the Crime Gun Center’s team of 12 analysts, supplied by six local and federal agencies, will compile that trace data into a larger database – an effort already underway with the center currently in a “soft launch.” 

Advocates and law enforcement officials hope this more robust approach to studying gun crime, which Milanowski called a “unique” supplement to existing efforts, will result in more muscular and targeted interventions. 

“If we can commit more resources to gathering intelligence, digesting what is valuable and then going after it in an effective and efficient manner, then we’re really going to help reduce violent crime in Harris County,” said Daniel Dellasala, a lieutenant and commander of the Crime Scene Investigations Unit at the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, one of the center’s participating agencies.  

Analysts will track the guns’ original purchaser, whether those purchasers ever sold the gun, and whether the purchasers or the buyers were ever involved with other guns recovered by law enforcement, among other factors. Collectively, this data will alert law enforcement to broader trends in how perpetrators of crime are sourcing their weapons – and support investigations on an individual level. 

“Unless you have dedicated people that are just looking at this, that stuff just falls through the cracks at law enforcement,” Milanowski said. “They may not even be aware that their guns aren’t properly being traced, or they’re incompletely being traced. But these analysts now are looking at every gun that’s coming into the department.”

ATF is prohibited by provisions in a 2003 federal appropriations bill from sharing trace data with individuals or agencies outside law enforcement, according to the nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety. But law enforcement officials hope the data they collect will help them stop violent crime through internal data analysis, highlighting opportunities to intervene at the source and stymie the flow of weapons into criminal hands. 

“As this project expands, we’re going to have two years’ worth of a really good dataset on how violent crews and gangs in the Houston metro area are getting their guns,” Milanowski said. “That just wouldn’t have been possible if there wasn’t a dedicated group of people looking at that crime gun intelligence.” 

‘Chasing fires’ 

In a report issued in May, Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy identified 53,985 gun crimes committed in Harris County between 2018 and 2021, including homicides, robberies, assaults and drive-by shootings, in addition to non-violent crimes like gun thefts and weapons violations. 

The Houston field division of the ATF has long operated a small-scale crime gun intelligence center to analyze these crimes, but the new initiative will make those efforts far more comprehensive, in part by collaborating with other agencies.

“We’re growing that model,” Dellasala said. “It’s bringing the sheriff’s office and ATF Houston closer together so you have multiple resources working in harmony, instead of working in silos.”

Violent crime overall is down in Houston, according to the most recent data released by the Houston Police Department, but gun thefts – particularly from parked cars – are on the rise.

Law enforcement officials believe that many of these stolen guns eventually find their way into the hands of neighborhood gang members, who are then targeted by law enforcement for other crimes – often committed using illegal guns.

“It’s a little bit like chasing fires and never catching the arsonist,” Milanowski said. “The goal is to identify the source of the guns and shut that off. That’s not the goal of the homicide detective. It’s not to shut off the pipeline of guns that got to his suspect.” 

The Crime Gun Center’s work will support homicide detectives and other investigators by providing context on the “life cycle” of the firearm used in the crime, illuminating more potential suspects tied to a specific case. 

The Pasadena Police Department, a participating agency, credited collaborative efforts like the new crime gun center as a key factor in solving crime across the Houston region.

“The Pasadena Police Department has already closed multiple cases as a result of this partnership and has contributed valuable information that assisted in the successful closure of cases from other agencies,” the department said in a statement.  

The Houston Police Department confirmed it is also participating in the new center, but declined to comment because the initiative is so new. 

Center analysts will also review the broader trends that reveal themselves through large datasets, Milanowski said, flagging possible straw purchasers, gun traffickers and other sources of crime guns. 

The proactive approach should yield promising new leads and make an impact on gun crime in the Houston area, said Justin Wagner, senior director of investigations at Everytown for Gun Safety.

“Whether it is shutting down gun stores that break the law or looking for new patterns of trafficked guns, the country is seeing what a robust and innovative ATF can do to reduce gun violence in the U.S.,” Wagner said. 

Finding the source of gun crime

Funding for the Center came from the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Program, a national initiative that assists local law enforcement in reducing drug trafficking and production. With $250,000, ATF will launch, house and supervise the center’s current team of analysts – a team Milanowski believes will expand as more law enforcement agencies join. 

That’s good news, said gun safety advocates, who are eager to see the partnership in action.  

“We’re super excited about it,” said Karin Knapp, an advocate with gun safety nonprofit Moms Demand Action. “We need evidence and data to find the sources of gun crimes. Law enforcement needs it to nip gun crime in the bud, at the source.” 

Knapp pointed out that the Houston Area Crime Gun Center is just one of several recent local initiatives dedicated to collecting and studying data on gun violence, including a public “firearm injury dashboard” that will collate medical and crime data in Houston, and a grant that will support researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston who study firearm injury and violence among adolescents and young adults. 

Knapp expressed optimism that the slate of data-driven initiatives will distinguish Houston nationally as a leader in gun violence prevention. 

“It’s going to take a few years for all of that to really make a difference, but it’s exciting,” Knapp said. “And I think our region is really going to be at the forefront of coming up with some of these evidence-based local gun violence solutions.” 

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Clare Amari covers public safety for the Houston Landing. Clare previously worked as an investigative reporter for The Greenville News in South Carolina, where she reported on police use of force, gender-based...