CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives don't expect their weapons vault in Charleston will ever be empty, but they hope every weapon that passes through it represents a crime stopped or solved.
ATF Public Information Officer Gerod King said, "We know when we deal with violent individuals, the one common denominator is usually firearms…Crime trends? They come and they go. Our job is to identify and deal with them as they do."
He says weapons are being sold out of the region less and less.
Guns stolen here are staying here because there is a local market for them. ATF believes the Lowcountry has gang activity contributing to these weapons hotspots.
"We are looking for the individuals who are carrying the firearms and committing crimes, but we are also looking for sources who provide firearms to criminals," King said.
In nearly 200 undercover operations over the past two years, ATF collected more than 58 firearms, 3.5 lbs. of cocaine and crack, meth and heroin. Weapons and drugs tend to go hand-in-hand when it comes to criminal activity.
42 arrest warrants were announced in the culmination of the investigation last week in a round-up.
The guns ATF and other law enforcement agencies seize have to be fingerprinted and processed. Agencies from all over the state bring recovered guns to the Charleston County Sheriff's Office.
Deputy Brian Sommerfeldt runs the IBIS system at CCSO.
The Integrated Ballistics Identification system is one of only two in the state where investigators can send guns to be test fired. It helps speed up police work by identifying matches between shell casings, which can help investigators connect guns, crimes and the criminals involved.
Test-firing starts in a special wet tank. The goal is to figure out a gun's "fingerprint."
Sommerfeldt said, "The bullet goes out the end of the gun, but the shell casing wants to go somewhere, too. It wants to go back. So the shell casing will jam itself against the area at the back of the chamber there."
He said that creates the unique mark like a fingerprint on the shell casing. Shell casings from the same gun will match even if fired at different times or locations.
"What IBIS does is take pictures of those as magnified digital images so it can try to match with other shell casings you may have put in the system," Sommerfeldt said.
There are IBIS systems linked all over the country.
The computer helps identify possible matches. Then Sommerfeldt and his colleague, retired Detective James Perkins, weed through the hits. SLED firearms experts also confirm the matches, and it sometimes busts a case wide open.
"Some of those guns we pick up at a traffic stop… could match some casings we got last week and put in. You never know," Sommerfeldt said.
They process at least 200 casings a month.
Guns from county cases are stored at the Sheriff's Office in evidence lockers until the case goes to trial. If the gun was reported stolen, they try to make sure it's returned to the original owner when the solicitor signs off on the case.
Investigators say local officers and federal agents need to share manpower and resources like IBIS to reverse dangerous trends and make communities safer.
Assistant Chief Reggie Burgess with the North Charleston Police Department said last week, "The community can continue to believe in us and eventually we'll see the community coming out a whole lot more. Kids playing in yards. Mothers talking over fences. Getting back to some semblance of a community."
"We want people to know what we're doing to make the safe, what we're doing for the community," King said.