An inside look at investigating gun crimes

WASHINGTON, D.C. (WDBJ7) WDBJ7 just traveled to Washington, D.C., and talked with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives about how they investigate gun crimes.

We got a look inside its forensic lab to see how the ATF helps connect the dots when major crimes happen.

From the crime scene to the courtroom, the big cases in our region find their way to John Fishwick.

John Fishwick, U.S. Attorney, Western District of Virginia, said, "At the end of the day, we're looking for real substantive evidence."

When it's a complex case, those bullets, guns and casings can wind up at the ATF's national forensic lab. It's a one-stop-shop for specialized cases. The ATF can test guns for the smallest traces of touch DNA left behind from skin cells.

The Bureau can also take guns and test fire into a water tank so they can get a good look at a leftover cartridge casing. When they're discovered at crime scenes, each gun leaves its own fingerprint of sorts. That's what investigators use to determine if this same gun has been used in other crimes.

The casings are loaded into a computer and sent to NIBIN, the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network. The system has almost three million pictures of evidence from across the country.

Alicia Lynch, ATF IBIS Technician said, "We are the eyes to maybe connect the dots."

The computer can go through the millions of pictures and serve up suggestions, but it's up to technicians like Alicia Lynch to go in and compare.

"I can manipulate the images to try and make a match,” Lynch said.

For instance, the lab can determine a gun used in a Roanoke shooting was the same one used in Norfolk giving police new links that would be tough to find without technology.

"We create the leads and we turn it over to the investigators and then they can use that,” Lynch said.

"That's a great asset to us in prosecuting cases,” Fishwick added.

There are dozens of sites across the country where casings can be entered and analyzed. That way, when gun crimes happen, police and the ATF have a better chance of tracking them down.

"It's important to be vigilant because these things can move very quickly,” Fishwick said.

The ATF created NIBIN back in 1999 and encourages departments to send all their cartridge casings so the network can continue to grow.