Cover Story: Gun-running - The Iron Pipeline

By Jeff Atkinson - bio | email

LANCASTER COUNTY, SC (WBTV) - A gun from South Carolina used to shoot four police officers in New Jersey.  And according to police, this happens far too often.  Guns are stolen from the Carolinas and used to commit crimes in the northeast.

Four police officers were shot in a home in Lakewood, New Jersey.  The suspect opened fire when police attempted to serve a warrant during a drug raid.  One officer was shot in the face, he's still in critical condition.

This gun was traced to South Carolina.  How were they able to do that?

Like fingerprints are unique to each of us.. tracking guns is no different.

What this case highlights is a concern federal law enforcement agent have.. what they call the "Iron Pipeline".

Guns stolen from our area.. and trafficked up the interstate.. to commit crimes in the northeast.

He'd just gotten in to his home in rural South Carolina after being out all day.

Walked into his bedroom.. and noticed the dresser drawers torn open.

The rent money was gone and two guns he had hidden were missing.

"It's just a deep feeling of wow.. I'm a victim."

He asked that we not show his face.. for fear the bad guys might retaliate.

A man we'll call Will discovered-- they broke in.. by prying open a window in the backyard.

Fingerprint dust from investigators you can still see.

Will's stolen gun.. a .357 magnum.  The gun used in the shooting of four police officers in New Jersey.  A gun the ATF says was stolen from South Carolina.

"Did it ever cross my mind that it was my gun? Yeah, how many guns do you know get stolen from South Carolina that identified a .357.. the fact that I had a .357 stolen out of my house."

It wouldn't surprise the ATF's Earl Woodham.. who showed us around the ATF evidence vault in Charlotte where the agency houses more than a thousand illegal weapons.

Every year, large numbers of guns stolen from the Carolinas are trafficked up the interstate known as the "Iron Pipeline" to states in the northeast where they're either sold or used to commit crimes.

Says Woodham, "A significant number of firearms that end up in criminal activity that where the origin was the Carolinas are as a result of being stolen from the Carolinas."

Woodham whom we reached by phone in Washington today says while federal laws are the same in every state.. some states in the northeast have even stricter gun laws.. making illegal gun trafficking a profitable enterprize.

At the ATF's lab in Atlanta forensic scientists can compare bullet casings enabling them to trace the origin of any gun.

Because each gun leaves a unique fingerprint.

It's through this process agents were able to trace the handgun used in the shootings of the four New Jersey police officers to an owner in South Carolina.

The ATF says most crimes commited with a firearm the legal purchaser and owner of the firearm is not the one committing the crime.

Says the ATF's Earl Woodham, "Treat a gun as you would cash, jewelry, diamonds, gold. Treat a firearm as if it had that much value because a gun can cause an awful lot of damage.. a lot more than your jewelry if it was stolen."

We contacted New Jersey authorities today.. and it was not Will's gun.. the one used in the police shootings in Lakewood.

The Carolinas are in the top 10 in the nation in illegal gun trafficking.

In fact two years ago-- nearly 300 guns used in crimes in New York City alone were traced to North Carolina.

What can they do about it?

Get homeowners to secure their guns better.. and educate gun dealers about the dangers.. some of the guns stolen from stores happen in smash and grabs.