WASHINGTON -- Illegal gun traffickers beware: Law enforcement officials are now equipped with a new nationwide computer system to track you down.
The system, called Online Lead, was activated for full-time use Tuesday in all 331 field offices of the Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
It quickly provides investigators information about guns used during crimes. Previously, they would have to wait for such information -- stored on computer discs -- to be shipped to ATF field offices, a potentially time-consuming process.
But just as important, law enforcement officials said, is that the sophisticated software in the new computer system will make it much easier for investigators to analyze data on guns used in crimes, helping them identify trends and patterns to track down illegal gun traffickers and get illegal guns off the streets.
"Online Lead will greatly enhance law enforcement's ability to detect, imprison and to deter criminals," said Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers.
Although police and other local law enforcement officials can't tap directly into the system on their own, they can access the system through ATF.
The system will be updated frequently and will provide information on guns used in crimes within 24 hours after a trace has been completed. Officials said steps have been taken to make sure the system is safe from hackers.
Local law enforcement officials are encouraged but not required to ask ATF to trace guns used during crimes. The results of those traces are entered into a growing national database that already has information on more than 1 million traced firearms.
"By reviewing these records, we can identify recurring trends and patterns that may indicate the illegal trafficking in firearms," said ATF Director John Magaw. "The more quickly that we follow up on leads, the more likely we are to solve the crime. The ability to rapidly associate a crime gun allows us to produce and follow up on important leads."
The sophisticated software enables investigators to do broad as well as very specific searches, such as finding out how many traced crime guns have been reported for a specific city street or within a particular zip code.
ATF, which has been tracing guns for years using various methods, has been operating Online Lead on a limited trial basis since February. Officials said the system has led to "hundreds" of convictions. They had no precise number.
Information about all firearms traced by the ATF goes into the national database and is available on the new system. What agents can trace is limited. They start with a gun's make and serial number, moving forward from the manufacturer to a wholesaler and distributor to the first retail sale by a federally licensed gun dealer.
All sales by licensed dealers must be recorded, and those records must be made available to ATF. But any sales by individuals or by individual collectors at gun shows, for example, are considered private and exempt from such record-keeping requirements.