Ask Foghorn: ATF Tracking Gunwalker Guns?

RF called me the night after I got home from shooting the ArmaLite M-15 at the Bridgeville High-Powered Rifle Match. “Let’s say the ATF wanted to track the Gunwalker guns in Mexico,” our Fearless Leader asked. “If they wanted to, could they?” It’s an interesting technical question. Let’s take a look at the options . . .

Option 1: Wait and Watch

This is the least technologically advanced option, and the slowest as well. Using this method, the ATF would log each gun that crosses the border and wait for it to be used in a crime and then reported back. The advantages: it’s cheap and simple. The disadvantage: the ATF wouldn’t know where the gun had been or where all of the guns are.

Option 2: Human Intelligence

The relationship between the ATF and the so-called straw purchasers smuggling guns to Mexico is unknown. Was the ATF “running” the smugglers or were they simply monitoring their movements? We know some ATF agents acted as straw purchasers and handed guns to smugglers. At some point, the ATF must have pumped the smugglers for information about the guns’ eventual whereabouts.

Option 3: Active Pinging

The opposite of the wait and watch method, this is the technological equivalent of each gun screaming “I’M HERE!” over the airwaves. A small transmitter would need to be hidden somewhere on each forearm and broadcast a radio signal that the ATF could then triangulate and track. But there are a ton of problems with that strategy.

First, the transmitter would need to be small enough to not be noticed, which is hard to do on modern slimmed-down rifles and even harder on pistols. The transmitter would be a “dumb” technology, only sending out one signal, so it could be very small. Dumb transmitters can be smaller than a postage stamp these days (and a barrel would probably make an AWESOME antenna). But it would stand out like a sore thumb for someone who knows what a gun is supposed to look like. Also, strong vibrations and high temperatures are not friends of electronics.

Second, the transmitter would need to be battery powered. The size of the battery would dictate the length and strength of the signal. Just like the transmitter, the battery would need to be small enough to remain hidden but large enough to power the transmitter for a long time. I’m pretty sure I’d notice a D-cell battery taped to my AR.

Third, the ATF would need to be somewhere nearby with an array of receivers to figure out where the guns are, probably within the borders of Mexico. While I know people who have bounced signals off the moon with less than a watt of radiated power, it seems unlikely that the range would be more than “to the horizon” without a tuned antenna and from inside houses.

Option 4: Passive Pinging

Just like the wireless ID cards used as access control cards for office buildings or E-Zpass, RFID can be used to find guns. If the ATF had planted an RFID transceiver on the gun before letting it pass into Mexico they would be able to activate it just by sending it a signal. The technological bits required are significantly smaller than the active pinging option, they last forever, and they’re much more concealable. But the ATF would need to be much closer to the guns. Like, within a few yards close.

Option 5: Active GPS Tracking

This is the ideal option. Combining a GPS receiver with a radio transmitter, the gun could figure out exactly where it is and tell anyone listening on the right frequency. The drawback is that the unit would be MASSIVE compared to the other options, not easily hidden at all and would run out of battery power faster than any other option.

The GPS would also need a clear view of the sky to function properly/reliably. Otherwise it would act like an active pinging unit. We’re talking about a matchbox sized piece of equipment, not even including the battery. It would definitely fit in a WASR stock or an AR-15 A1 or A2 stock, but anything without a solid stock is pretty much S.O.L.

Option 6: Passive GPS Logging

Probably the worst technological option. The gun would need a GPS receiver and a battery, but wouldn’t send out a signal. Instead it would keep track of where it’s been on a local memory chip, stopping when it ran out of space on the chip or battery power. The only way this information would be useful is if the ATF were able to retrieve it, and that would only happen if it was dropped at a crime scene. Like the “wait and see” option, this basically requires a commission of a crime in Mexico.

Option 7: Satellite/Drone Spying

You can track people and objects from a drone or a satellite. As the ATF knew who had the guns and (probably) where they were going, they could have watched them go there. Logistically, it’s a bit of a nightmare; you need actual eyes on screen for a long time, during which nothing much may happen. ID’ing new individuals from an eye in the sky isn’t easy, to the point of impossibility. And since we’re talking about over 2000 guns in batches of up to 40 weapons, who do you watch when the guns scatter?