(CNN) — The fight against gun-related crime has taken a hit from budget cuts, as a federal agency has laid off nearly a hundred contract workers at its facility dedicated to tracing firearms used by criminals.
Ninety-eight contract employees at the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' National Tracing Center lost their jobs as of March 31 because of the forced budget cuts known as the sequester.
The Justice Department confirmed the layoffs with CNN and offered a written statement:
"ATF was forced to cut its budget by $82 million across the board, including its firearms program and, as a result, 98 contractors in its Martinsburg, West Virginia, facility firearms program have been laid off so far."
Those 98 were among 380 contract workers and 185 full-time federal employees at the Martinsburg facility.
Neither the agency nor the Justice Department would speak on the record about the layoffs.
"Laying off employees at the National Tracing Center is a big deal," said David Chipman, a former ATF special agent who once headed the agency's firearms program. Now, he's policy adviser for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's gun safety group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns. "Getting information on purchasers to law enforcement as quickly as possible is a critical need."
The firearms bureau hired the contract workers because requests for gun traces kept rising while the bureau's budget for full-time positions did not, Chipman told CNN.
When there's a gun-related murder, or when a police officer is shot, the agency's goal is to trace the purchaser or the owner of the gun within 24 hours.
"My understanding is, they will still do whatever possible to meet that deadline, though now it's going to be much harder," Chipman said. "They've had to take resources from other sections to do it."
He said those other sections deal with tracing stolen firearms and keeping records that help police investigate firearms trafficking.
"It's not that things won't be done," Chipman said. "It's just that things won't be done as quickly," a potentially major problem because, "some crimes, time is of the essence."
On top of it, ATF has a labor intensive method of gun tracing. Because of federal laws aimed at preventing a federal gun registry, much of the ATF's record keeping is done by hand, rather than by computer.
So the labor cuts hit that much harder.