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'Our goal is to disrupt the shooting cycle': Inside the ATF, an agency dedicated to stopping gun violence in Louisville

'Our strategy is to make sure we're holding people accountable who are responsible for violent crime.'

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Gun violence in Louisville is the worst it has ever been. A quick look at the numbers shows shootings are up more than 250% in the last two years, and the first five months of 2021 have seen shootings up 90% from 2020 — the deadliest year on record.

Experts who examine the evidence of each case say there is only one agency that has the power to put a stop to the violence: the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

In every corner of the city, at all hours of the day and night, Louisville ATF agents are scoping out the streets — waiting for the call and watching for indicators that would allow them to intervene in time.

"We have to be smart, we have limited resources, we have a limited number of special agents and we want to make sure they're deployed on the most impactful cases," said Shawn Morrow, ATF Louisville's Special Agent in Charge.

Morrow took over in May 2020, just as the city's violence began ramping up. Coming from Baltimore, Morrow used his experience to make immediate changes to agency's priorities, focusing on increased shootings.

"Any other focuses took a back seat to violent crime," Morrow said.

Those changes included embedding special agents in the Louisville Metro Police Department's homicide unit, presenting immediate access to the city's most heinous crimes and showing exactly what the agency is up against.

"I'm extremely concerned," Morrow said. "I'm concerned about the trends we saw in 2020, I'm concerned about the trends we've seen in the first quarter of this year. Those numbers are unacceptable."

However, it wasn't just an uptick in violence that concerned Morrow. The COVID-19 pandemic created new challenges, like a decrease in law enforcement's contact with the public. Ongoing protests also pulled ATF resources.

"It's our job to make sure the community is safe, the people who are out expressing their First Amendment rights are safe," Morrow said. "For every special agent protecting that situation or for every police officer detailed on the large gathering, that's less police officers and less agents out in our community. That certainly has an impact."

Dr. Daniel Webster, director of the John Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Prevention and Policy, said the federal agency is also understaffed and under-resourced — hurting their fight against increased gun violence.

"The ATF is grossly, greatly under-resourced for the gun violence problem across the nation," Webster said.

President Joe Biden recently announced his plan to pour more money into the agency, suggesting a 5% bump in the ATF's overall budget. But is that 5% enough?

While gun violence is up more than 250% in the past two years, the number of ATF special agents nationwide is up only 1.5%. This means close to the same number of special agents are facing nearly triple the workload in Louisville.

"Cities really, desperately need the help of federal government and state government," Webster said. "They need resources more than ever."

Webster, who studies the science behind violent crime and the agencies fighting against it, said he has seen the impacts of the staffing shortage in compromised work from the ATF as agents choose cases that will bring quick results instead of working more meaningful investigations. 

"Arresting a felon with possession of a gun usually does not take a lot of investigative technique or ability," Webster said. "If you look at gun trafficking cases, those cases are far more complex, require a lot more time and investigative technique and cooperation."

Morrow said the critique is fair for his industry, noting that while investigations into people possessing illegal firearms are serious, those people may not be the people most responsible for today's violent crime.

"We're not interested in low hanging fruit or making mass arrests, that's not our strategy," Morrow said. "Our strategy is to make sure we're holding people accountable who are responsible for violent crime."

In Louisville, he has shifted the focus from possession of illegal firearms to people who he says are committing violent crimes now and intend to pull the trigger later — cases he says are more impactful.

"I don't care about statistics or numbers, what I care about is impact and quality of cases to make sure we are taking the most violent offenders off the street and making Louisville safer," Morrow said.

He said the ATF is also being strategic, relying on crime gun intelligence and utilizing science and technology to guide their investigations more than they ever have before.

"Our goal is to disrupt the shooting cycle," Morrow said.

Those efforts, Morrow said, start inside the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN).

"It sort of acts like fingerprints for firearm offenses," Morrow said. "It links crime scenes and can help us find suspects and tie crime scenes together that we may not have previously known were together."

NIBIN is known for speeding up investigations and identifying patterns, helping special agents fulfill missions that experts say only they have the power to do.

"What a metropolitan police department cannot do as ATF can do, is actually investigate the trafficking, investigate who is supplying the guns being used to kill people in Louisville," Webster said.

And for the leader of Louisville's ATF, stopping the killing is the bottom line.

"I think it’s outrageous that we've seen the number of shootings that we have," Morrow said. "The trends have to stop. ATF is committed to making that happen."

Leaders at Louisville's ATF division said they need more agents to continue their fight. They are currently hiring, looking for specialized law enforcement officers to work as special agents in the field and Industry Operation investigators who regulate the firearm industry.

Contact reporter Shay McAlister at smcalister@whas11.com. Follow her on Twitter (@WHAS11Shay) and Facebook.

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