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Last week, D.C. finished taking 2,908 guns off the street. This week, ballistics examiner Luciano Morales has a lot of shooting to do.
Officer Luciano Morales opens the guts of a .38 special for a close inspection. All the joints stick, the chambers are in such dire need of oiling that Morales strains to force the cartridges in, and the barrel is clogged with more gunk than a fry cook’s arteries. Rust laces the gun’s silver body.
This Rockford Files relic doesn’t look fit for a pawn shop, let alone a gun show. But still, Morales needs to get to the basics: How old is this .38? Was it well oiled by some National Rifle Association zealot or left to rot in a shoe box for decades? All he can do is inspect the weapon at his own methodical pace. His fingers crawl over the barrel. From behind safety glasses that dwarf his face, Morales peers inside the chambers. After a few seconds of poking and prodding, he is satisfied.
“I need a .357,” Morales tells his assistant. “No, I need a .38 special copper.”
Morales plugs the cartridge inside. He turns and stands arrow-straight, ready to aim and fire.
An examiner with the Metropolitan Police Department’s Firearms and Toolmark Examination Section, Morales spends every day testing guns that come in off the streets. Just as data-entry folk spend their 9-to-5 plugging in numbers, Morales clocks in to pull triggers for eight long hours on the first floor of police headquarters at 300 Indiana Ave. NW. But today is more than another dull day of firing. Two days ago, “Operation Gun Tip,” a citywide amnesty program promising $100 cash and anonymity to anyone who turned in a gun, netted nearly 3,000 weapons. And now it’s up to Morales—and his five fellow firearms examiners—to test each and every one of those guns, trying to separate the ones that saw action in crimes from the ones that have lived under Grandma’s bed since the Eisenhower administration.
Morales pushes the .38 special’s muzzle through a portal in the bullet recovery tank, a large aluminum refrigerator-sized vat filled with water. When a bullet is expelled into the tank, the water slows it down so it can land undamaged on the tank’s bottom—allowing inspectors to check its ballistics against those of bullets from guns used in crimes.
“Got your ears?” he asks an assistant, myself, and a photographer. From under our 1970s-era heavy-metal earpods, we nod. No one in the room will go deaf today. “OK,” he says, clasping the gun with both of his big hands. The room goes silent.
“Fire in the hole!” Morales shouts, waiting just a moment before snapping the trigger. Click. Nothing. Another click. Still no bullet blast. He checks the .38, trying to identify the problem. The gun is old, Morales says, explaining what he calls a “light strike,” the moment when you pull the trigger and nothing happens.
Morales jostles the impotent .38, then finally puts it back in the portal. “Fire in the hole!”
Ignition and pop!
The .38 snaps back and fires a spritz of gunpowder, gas, and flame. Morales then fires a second shot with another quick pump. The bullets wait to be retrieved at the bottom of the tank. An assistant takes a large white-clay-tipped plunger and fishes them out.
Only 2,900 guns to go.
According to Karen Wiggins, the section’s civilian chief, the techs are getting overtime to handle the demand for their services. The unit’s hours have been extended: These days, guns are fired almost round the clock. Morales & Co. open up shop at 3:30 a.m. and don’t leave till 8 p.m. Wiggins isn’t sure when the analysis of the gun-buyback bonanza will be finished. She says her unit is still going through a batch of guns taken at an earlier stage of the buyback by the 6th District police station two weeks ago.
Although the police department is working with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms’ (ATF) Washington Field Division, Wiggins’ unit is stuck with test-firing all the weapons and entering the expelled bullets into computer databases. Although Patrick Hynes, the ATF’s division director, stated at last week’s Operation Gun Tip press conference that the gun tracing will take 90 days, the whole operation—from the test-firing and computer tracing to realized matches with guns used in crimes—could take a lot longer.
“It depends on resources; it depends on how many guns are recovered from crimes,” explains Brad Earman, an ATF spokesperson. “It can take a matter of minutes to literally days or weeks, depending on the history of the firearm. We may have to go back to the manufacturer. That manufacturer may be out of business. We may never know. Many of these guns are not going to be traceable.”
Morales’ role makes the much-hyped gun buyback look a lot less glamorous than it does on television, where police brass have spent a week patting themselves on the back for their anti-crime prowess. Instead of posing with a warehouse full of newly returned guns, his job is to look for needles in one very large haystack. Despite this full plate of weapons and ammo, Morales—a five-year unit vet who has helped solve a few murder cases in his day—doesn’t look much like a gun nut. This is a science, he explains, and patience is the key to the job.
Morales places the two bullets into a mini-envelope, from which they’ll be removed for marking and cataloguing. The bullets will eventually get tested under an American Optical stereo microscope. Morales will look for any identifying marks, what he calls a bullet’s “lands and grooves.”
Sitting down at a work bench outside the testing room, Morales takes a Craftsman etcher and carves his initials into the .38. The gun is now his responsibility. If the bullets’ lands and grooves are linked to a crime, he’ll follow the gun to court and testify about the gun and his ballistics methods. He places the gun in a finished stack and turns to a small white linoleum-topped table loaded with 40 more guns waiting to be tested.
The spread is pathetic. Its rows look like badly scratched teeth. Each gun seems remarkably unique and fairly nonthreatening: Some come crippled with rust; others have handles cobbled together with worn duct tape. Each has a tag number. Each is waiting to be fired and then put down.
Morales circles the table. He picks out another two weapons at random—a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson and a small, silver .22-caliber pistol. “It’s a time-consuming process, something that you have to like to do,” Morales explains back in the testing room. “It’s a serious process. Whatever you say could be important, because this could go to court.”
With guns like these, a courtroom drama is very, very doubtful. After a few “light strikes,” the .38 fires off without a hitch. The .22 has bigger problems. Its trigger mechanism won’t pull back far enough to catch. Morales yanks on the silver slide, pulls it back and forth. Still no dice. The gun simply will not fire.
“It looks like an old firearm,” Morales says, leaving the soundproofed room and turning the gun over to Leon Krebs, a firearm and toolmark trainer working on a gun nearby. Maybe Krebs can look at the small silver handgun and fix the slide? “I tried to pull it,” Morales explains. “It won’t do it.” He goes back to the table for two more guns. CP