Federal Agents Trace Guns Used by Mexican Drug Cartels Back to U.S. Buyers—But Won’t Say if They Obtain Warrants Before Visiting Buyers' Homes

By Edwin Mora | July 8, 2009 | 8:29 PM EDT

A Sig Sauer 9mm pistol, a gun popular with drug cartels, is displayed at an ATF news conference in Houston.(AP photo)

(CNSNews.com) – More than 100 agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) have been visiting the houses of gun purchasers in Houston, Texas. But the federal agency won’t say if agents are using warrants to do so.
Dewey Webb, special agent in charge of ATF’s Houston Field Division, told CNSNews.com that ATF agents are visiting homes in the Houston area in connection with weapons that have been identified as being used by the drug cartels in Mexico.
“Under ATF’s Project Gunrunner program and the Gun Runner Impact Teams or GRIT, ATF has identified several weapons of choice used by the drug trafficking organizations to outfit their criminal enterprises in Mexico,” Webb told CNSNews.com.
Webb explained how the program works saying that weapons that are traced back to certain U.S. purchasers trigger leads for agents to check out.
“When a firearm is recovered that has been used in a crime in Mexico, ATF through its eTrace system can often trace that weapon back to its original purchaser,” Webb told CNSNews.com.
“ATF agents, vigilant yet ever respectful of the rights of law abiding gun owner, will then initiate contact with those original purchasers,” he added. “Those contacts generally lead to either confirmation of a legitimate purchase or could reveal additional indicators that may suggest a firearm trafficking scheme.”
Webb added: “Contacts that reveal potentially illegal activities are investigated, and the recovery of any and all suspect weapons becomes a priority.”
However, when CNSNews.com asked for details about the visits--including whether agents obtain search warrants--the ATF referred CNSNews.com to a bureau spokeswoman who did not say whether the ATF used warrants on certain occasions or if this gun-tracing program is a national effort or one restricted to the Houston area.
Dr. Franceska Perot, a special agent and spokeswoman for the ATF Houston Division, told CNSNews.com that she was unable to answer all of the questions CNSNews.com asked, given the sensitivity of the ongoing investigations.
Perot said the agents, who come from different parts of the country, have been dispatched to Houston to take part in the GRIT investigation.
“ATF is following up on leads as part of potential firearms trafficking investigations,” Perot told CNSNews.com.
Perot said that no other federal agency is working with the ATF on the effort, and that the agency is not looking for drugs.
When asked, “How many homes have been investigated using this approach?” Perot denied that the agency was targeting homes.  
“ATF isn't targeting homes,” Perot said. “We are following up on leads that could develop into formal firearms trafficking investigations.”
But Perot would not respond to the question of whether ATF agents were obtaining warrants.
Meanwhile, the agents’ approach includes posing inquiries to individuals about their neighbors’ guns and purchasing habits.
A June 30 article in the Houston Chronicle reported that the federal agents were “combing neighborhoods and asking people about suspicious purchases” as well as questioning the former owners how their guns ended up being used to commit crimes in Mexico.
The article reported that ATF agents weren’t wearing raid jackets--and didn’t have warrants.
Although ATF data pinpoints Houston as the main source of weapons seized by Mexican authorities and traced back to the U.S., the federal government is prohibited by law from collecting data on gun owners. Instead, ATF is going after gun dealers’ records.
According to the Houston Chronicle, one set of guns the ATF investigated were bought by a local pastor for “target practice.” 
Another reported case involved a police officer who bought “military style rifles,” stored them in his car and “forgot to lock a door.”

The officer did not file a police report when the weapons were stolen and was unable to provide an explanation as to why he went to Mexico “the day after the alleged theft.”