Even before the unrest in April — before rioters set fires in several city neighborhoods, before homicides reached highs not seen in decades, before local, state and federal law enforcement leaders set up a "war room" to target the most violent criminals — Baltimore was a hotbed of activity for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The Baltimore field office of the ATF, which covers Maryland and Delaware, is one of the smallest in the agency. But it is also one of the busiest, officials say. Even in the quietest of times, agents confront a city steeped in gangs and guns — the bread and butter of a federal law enforcement outfit whose name often belies its true purpose.
The office has never been busier than now, according to William "Bill" McMullan, 47, who has served as Baltimore's special agent in charge for about a year and a half.
In addition to the dozens of ATF enforcement, operations and intelligence agents stationed in Baltimore full time, 50 agents from the bureau's National Response Team are now leading investigations into seven of the largest fires during the April riots.
Last week, 10 more agents arrived from up and down the East Coast to be paired with Baltimore police investigating individuals targeted by war room commanders.
"There are certain people in the city who are responsible for a large portion of the crime in the city," McMullan told The Baltimore Sun. "Working together ... is making us stronger."
Law enforcement analysts say the fresh commitment could have a major impact on city violence, both as a deterrent to would-be criminals and as a boost to state and local gun-trafficking investigations.
According to McMullan, it began as the city erupted in flames.
The death of Freddie Gray, who suffered a severe spinal injury in police custody, prompted days of mostly peaceful protests. But on the day Gray was buried, anger boiled over. Rioters threw rocks and bottles at police, looted businesses and set fires throughout the city.
"The very first night that the civil unrest really spiked, that Monday night, the 27th of April, I went over to the Baltimore police headquarters, to the watch center, and sat down with [then-Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts] and his command staff to figure out what ATF could do for them to help them that evening, what we could bring to the table — resources, manpower, whatever they needed," McMullan said.
"In talking to them, it was clear that what they really needed immediately was help on the arsons that occurred, because it was getting out of control."
Fires were breaking out across the city, with vehicles set ablaze, dozens of buildings ignited and incendiary devices in the streets, McMullan said.
That night, McMullan obtained approval to activate the ATF's National Response Team, a highly trained outfit of agents from across the country who specialize in arson investigations and explosives. Fifty of those agents began to arrive in the city the next morning.
"They were perfect for this situation because they bring their expertise, special equipment, and there are some specialties in the NRT that are important to this: certified fire investigators, forensic mapping, digital investigators to look through all the evidence," McMullan said.
The agents began partnering with Baltimore police, the Fire Department, the state fire marshal's office, and local ATF agents and fire investigators, he said. They took over seven of the largest arson cases, including the burning of one Rite Aid and two CVS pharmacies and a senior center under construction in East Baltimore.
"They create one team atmosphere, and they'll systematically go to each scene, gather the evidence, process the evidence, interview witnesses on each scene separately," McMullan said.
They have easy access from Baltimore to the ATF's national laboratory in Beltsville, where evidence processing can go into overdrive, McMullan said.
The fire investigations have already led to results, including the charging of Raymon Carter, 24, in the burning of the CVS pharmacy at Pennsylvania and North avenues.
McMullan said putting 10 more agents on the ground with police officers could have an even larger impact.
"These are going to be agents who are on the street, assigned 100 percent to the war room," McMullan said. "They're not going to be sitting in the office behind computers. They're going to be out on the street."
The agents will serve 60-day stints doing "street-level enforcement" in unmarked vehicles, side by side with Baltimore police, he said.
The city recorded 42 killings in May, Baltimore's deadliest month in 25 years, then surpassed that number in July. But city and police officials say the new partnerships are yielding more arrests and more gun seizures. Outside law enforcement observers say such partnerships can bring positive results when given time.
They also say that if the added ATF agents stay longer than a couple of months, it could have major implications, particularly in the fight against gun violence.
Former ATF agent Joe Vince, director of the criminal justice program at Mount St. Mary's University, said the agency's involvement in street-level investigations brings an immediate power to the fight against crime. He said the arrival of federal law enforcement agents to get bad guys with guns off the nation's streets puts the fear of federal prosecution — with its steeper penalties — in the minds of criminals.
"What you're changing is how the criminals think," he said. "You want them to get to thinking, 'No, you don't want to have a gun, because if you have a gun you're going to jail, and they're starting to come looking for us.'"
Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, agreed.
"A lot of local officials believe that the threat of federal prosecution is powerful and ATF working those cases to deliver them to U.S. attorneys is helpful," he said.
The longer the ATF stays, Vince said, the deeper it can get into local gun-trafficking. Arresting a gunman might yield one or two guns, he said, but busting a trafficker could yield more than 50. Busting a source — a shop or gun show that skirts the law — could stop hundreds of guns from entering the illegal market.
"If you're looking at your traces and you're seeing that you have a gun store, ABC gun store, and they sell a lot of guns that the gangbangers and dope dealers are buying, then why not go in and look at the names on the records?" Vince said. "A lot of gang members, they go together to buy guns, they have places where they store guns. Getting into that would be good."
He said studies show that criminals "go get the 9 mm or the type of gun they use for gangbanging" at the "easy places to get them" — gun shows or shops that are not strict about asking questions.
Gov. Martin O'Malley signed legislation two years ago that gave state police new access to gun shop records, including when they receive tips on problem shops from federal authorities.
"They can look over the shoulders of gun dealers, they can check their inventory, they can audit their compliance, they can go in and see all their books and records," said Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh, who as a state senator helped write the legislation. "If you fail to keep the proper records or sell to the wrong people, you can lose your license — and if it's intentional, if you intentionally are in violation of the act, it's also a crime."
Frosh called guns "a public health problem throughout the United States."
"Maryland is no different," he said. "Having some additional federal attention in our state can make a big difference."
Webster said the ATF "is most effective when [agents] work in cooperation with local and state officials in places with reasonably strong gun laws," such as Maryland.
About four in 10 guns seized in criminal investigations in Maryland were purchased in another state.
"I've listened in on debriefings on trafficking cases where Baltimore gangs head to gun shows in Northern Virginia to buy guns with no questions asked, no paperwork, no background checks," Webster said.
In investigations that lead out of state, the ATF can "address the so-called pipeline, or the manner in which the guns are getting to the most dangerous people."
McMullan said the ATF is committed — both in the short term and long term — to holding criminals in Baltimore accountable, whether for setting buildings on fire during the unrest or for taking part in the surge of violence scarring the city.
One of the agency's goals," he said, is to "let people know that for anyone who is interested in trying to do that in Baltimore City, we will bring everything we can to the table to hold them accountable, and the U.S. attorney's office and the state's attorney's office and the [police] will be working with us on that.
"That's the important message."