ATF Internship Tracks Firearms Trafficking

Senior Carter Cole spent her Fall semester at Sam Houston State University tracking stolen guns for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) in Houston.

While most of her time was spent on the paper trail of weapons in the office, Cole did get out in the field on surveillance missions. With graduation less than a month away, she plans to pursue a career in a federal agency or private security firm. She is hooked on the investigative work.

"It has been very interesting," said Cole, who participate in the internship program offered by the College of Criminal Justice. "There are a lot of agents working their way up from the small people to the big guys."

Texas is the number one source state of crime guns recovered in Mexico and Houston is the number one city within Texas, said Special Agency Dr. Franceska Perot, the public information officer for the Houston Field Office.

"The drugs are coming up from Mexico, and the guns and money are moving back down," said Perot. "We work the weapons like DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) works drugs – we are after the transportation and supply."

Carter was part of Project Gunrunner, an initiative to prevent firearms trafficking. Weapons originating in the United States often are used to murder U.S. citizens and foreign officials and are used in the drug trade, terrorism and other illegal activities.

"When I first started working here, I watched how things were done," said Cole. "It looked like they are really making an impact. I got to meet all different kinds of people. Some were police officers before they came to ATF, and some were right out of college. I met agents from New York and California as well as several agents for the DEA and ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement)."

The paperwork in cases, although not the exciting part of the job, is critical for the conviction of gunrunners. It helps to track stolen weapons or straw purchases, where buyers use a intermediary to purchase a firearm from a licensed dealer to hide their identity. With 1,500 licensed gun dealers in the Houston region, and 5,000 in the Southern region, it is a huge and tedious task.

"I would hire her in a minute,” said Special Agent Daniel Casey, a Group Supervisor in Houston who supervised Cole. "She gets along with everyone and doesn’t hold her opinions, but she does it in a professional way. I think she would make a good employee."

"At the ATF, it requires a lot of hard work and a desire to succeed," Casey said. "There has to be a drive within you to go out at 1 or 3 a.m. in the morning on surveillance. There are a lot of times that the job supersedes family events. You have to make personal sacrifices."

In addition to targeting federal laws related to firearms, alcohol and tobacco, the ATF plays a role in preventing terrorism and investigating arson and explosive incidents and threats. The agency also is a world leader in forensic science.

The ATF Houston region only accepts interns from Sam Houston State University and has one to three working in the office each semester. Before joining the ATF, students must go through a complete background check, similar to the rigorous screenings given to contractors for the agency.

"At SHSU, the training is more practical, and students understand the difference between federal state and local law enforcement," said Perot. "Their qualifications and screening process are impeccable."

Casey, himself a 1996 Sam Houston State University graduate, said the College of Criminal Justice enjoys a good reputation in the law enforcement field, which leads to high expectations from students.

"You hear that if you graduate from Sam, you’re are something special," Casey said. "You have a lot to live up to."

Carter is one of about 125 students a year that participate in the internship program at the College of Criminal Justice. The college offers internships at about 200 agencies, including federal, state and local law enforcement and corrections as well victims’ services and private security.

Internships generally are taken during the last semester before graduation and include a full-time, 40-hour a week assignment. Undergraduates earn nine semester hour credits and graduate students earn six.

The most coveted internships usually are federal positions, and not all students are accepted. It is a competitive process. To participate in internship, students must complete 90 hours of credit and have a 2.5 grade point average, a 3.0 if they are seeking a federal position. Some internships require extensive lead times, physical fitness tests or firearms training requirements.

"We try and look at placements to enable potential employment opportunities," said Dr. Jim Dozier, Criminal Justice Internship Coordinator. "Many times internships segue into employment in the sponsoring agency. All allow for establishing networks that enhance career opportunities. We want this internship to be a great opportunity for the student and the agency."

Member of The Texas State University System