PHILADELPHIA - Where are all of the illegal guns used in Philadelphia crimes coming from? Can officials do more to keep them off of our streets?
FOX 29's Jeff Cole recently sat down with ATF Special Agent in Charge Matthew Varisco and found out that the issue is much more complicated than many people believe.
It's also bigger than just Philadelphia, where the city has seen well over 500 homicides in 2021.
"That strikes us here at the ATF very hard, because our primary mission is to reduce firearm violence in the city of Philadelphia and throughout the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania," Varsico said.
As the Special Agent in Charge of the Philadelphia office of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, Varisco's job is to keep firearms out of the wrong hands.
With murders at a record number, and the crack of gunfire nearly constant on city streets, his challenge is large.
"Where are the guns coming from that are killing people in this city?" Cole asked during his one-on-one with Varisco.
"What we know from comprehensive tracing, through the ATF National Tracing Center, is that firearms are primarily being diverted into Philadelphia from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania," Varisco responded. "I say that, but I also want to clarify in the sense that we do have a significant amount of firearms that are trafficked into the city of Philadelphia from other states."
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For the crime guns coming from Pennsylvania, Varisco argues that many are illegally bought from gun dealers through a process known as 'straw purchasing.'
Straw purchasing is when a legal gun buyer buys a gun for an illegal buyer, like someone with a felony conviction.
So how can the ATF stop straw purchases?
"We stop that through intelligence. Through, as I said, tracing the firearms so we know where we can identify these schemes and patterns," Varisco said.
Varisco says ATF agents will sometimes go to the home of the person who bought the guns and ask questions – trying to learn if they've dumped them into the underground flow of illegal weapons. But, there are limits.
"Isn't that one of your challenges in Pennsylvania?" Cole asked. "That you are not required to report a lost or stolen weapon. So even if that person says to you, 'I lost them,' you can't arrest them around that, right?"
"We wouldn't be able to initiate an arrest at first," Varisco replied. "It would require more work. Which we have several task forces set up to do that with our partners. This takes an all-hands-on-deck approach."
Varisco says the ATF works with local police and federal prosecutors to bring gun charges.
He also says most firearms used to kill within Philadelphia come from outside its borders.
"What we do know is the majority of firearms are purchased outside of the city and brought into the city of Philadelphia. That's where the majority of the crime guns are coming from," he explained.
"Why do you think?" Cole asked.
"It may just be the amount of licensees outside the city," Varisco replied.
There are more than 31,000 federal firearms licensees, or dealers, in Pennsylvania.
Varisco says the ATF has the responsibility to inspect every licensee once a year, but says it's not something they can accomplish due to a lack of required manpower.
"We can't do that based on the amount of manpower that we have. So, what we do is we strategically look at federal firearm licensees that have higher levels of firearm recoveries, and we will inspect them," Varisco added.
The ATF inspects gun dealers that have sold firearms that are later linked to crimes. They have pulled licenses and brought criminal charges in some instances.
Varisco says the ATF needs help from the public, but knows the fear. He also says his agency has money that it will give to tipsters who will give them information on gun trafficking. They will also pay to relocate those who come forward and help them and are now fearful.