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?

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About Nick Leghorn

Nick Leghorn is a gun nerd living and working in San Antonio, Texas. In his free time, he's a competition shooter (USPSA, 3-gun and NRA High Power), aspiring pilot, and enjoys mixing statistics and science with firearms. Now on sale: Getting Started with Firearms by yours truly!

7 Responses to Ask Foghorn: ATF Tracking Gunwalker Guns?

  1. avatarTTACer says:

    I don’t think they thought that far ahead. That, or they wanted them to be used in crimes.

  2. avatarBlake says:

    Interesting about tracking the weapons. I hadn’t thought about that aspect.

    If ATF wasn’t electronically tracking Gunwalker weapons, one has to conclude the ATF had an agenda that had absolutely nothing to do with weapons smuggling.

  3. avatarIke says:

    I suspect you’re giving ATF far more credit than is due. To rig a gun with a tracking unit would require advance knowledge about the purchase, then time to place a tracking unit in each gun – and we’re talking about thousands of guns…..

    My read on the situation, is that ATF was primarily waiting for the serial numbers to surface in Mexico in the eTrace system – with links back to the original ‘straw purchaser’. All such sales were completely legal – until the guns surface in Mexico…. ATF showed little interest in interdiction before crossing the border.

    Except for the agents who objected, ATF personnel showed no concern for the ‘unintended consequences’ (Mexican deaths) resulting from the sales.

  4. avatarJeff Lynch says:

    RFID chips are so small today that they can be molded into very tiny o-rings and used to track individual seals used in oilfield applications. The technology is not science fiction, it is in use today and I have personally witnessed it.

    • Yes, but they still need a signal strong enough to hit the chip and reflect back. Then you start to get into a trade-off between antenna size and range, and even with football field sized antennas the range is still only “line of sight.”

      RFID is an amazing technology, but I don’t think it can fit this role.

  5. avatarJohn Fritz says:

    The government is not (nearly) as smart as you are Nick. My guess – option 1.

  6. avatarpoppymann says:

    I don’t think there is a way to actively track them unless DARPA has something new.
    RFID is good but requires close reading.
    QR codes could be engraved somewhere and could be read by field operatives with an iPhone.
    Human intelligence is the only way to effectively track them in real time.

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