Sandy Hook School, Margery Stoneman Douglas High School, the Las Vegas Strip concert, Tree of Life Synagogue, the Pulse Nightclub. Any one of these mass shootings should have our government reexamining the way law enforcement tracks guns. We put a man on the moon fifty years ago; so we have to be able to stop these atrocities!
When police find a gun on TV they run the serial number through a computer and it tells them who owns it in seconds. Easy! But the reality is wildly different, slower, and more confusing. Why? Because a decades-old law limits the technology federal agents can use to trace guns. (The Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986.) That’s right; gun purchase information cannot be computerized because that would be considered a “gun registry.” The argument is that the privacy rights of the gun owner take precedence over my right not to get shot in the head.
When police officers find guns at the scene of the crime they need to know as quickly as possible who owns them. Today that means they submit a purchase history request with the gun’s serial number to the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The ATF’s National Tracing Center is located in Martinsburg, West Virginia. There, analysts trace hundreds of thousands of guns every year. They could trace even more, but they can’t because the records are all on paper in thousands of file cabinets, drawers, and boxes that fill much of the building as well as containers in the parking lot. The facility contains roughly 700,000,000 documents. Yes, that’s 700 million paper documents.
The records include gun sales that date back decades. None of them are entered into any kind of searchable computer program – which could drastically speed up the tracing process. The government is prohibited from maintaining any sort of a searchable database of names.
When Congress passed the Gun Control Act 50 years ago, it gave ATF the right to trace guns used in crimes. However, Congress was also concerned with protecting the rights of gun owners. Many gun owners (read that as the NRA) think if the ATF puts gun sale records in a database, it will be the first step to the government limiting how many guns people could own, or confiscating them altogether. Please understand that every time someone buys a gun in America they must fill out a federal background check form, also known as ATF Form 4473. Without new legislation, the ATF cannot computerize this information.
Every day, the ATF tracing center gets about 1,500 trace requests. That’s an average of one every minute of the day. Instead of working through that caseload by entering the guns serial number into a computer (the way cars are traced), tracing center analysts have to go through an incredibly time consuming, cumbersome process.
First, analysts pick up a phone and call the gun manufacturer to get the name of the store where the gun was sold. Then they use that information to track down the store owner, since by law it’s the owner who is required to keep and maintain records of the firearms they buy or sell. Once the ATF reaches the gun store owner, they can finally figure out who originally bought the gun they are tracing – unless that store has gone out of business.
When a gun store closes, the owner is required to send all federal gun sale records to the tracing center. Which means in addition to the 700,000,000 documents the center already has in-house, roughly 2,000,000 new records arrive every month.
This creates even more work for a staff of only about 350 individuals. If a gun dealer sends records in an excel spreadsheet, ATF has to immediately dumb it down so that it can’t be queried by a computer. Our government in action. Smart, huh?
The process is painfully slow. A single gun trace takes a week or more except in the highest profile cases. To perform a search, ATF investigators must find the specific index number of a former dealer, then search records chronologically for records of the exact gun they seek.
Why do we make it so hard for cops to solve crimes? Because the powerful NRA has so many legislators in its pocket. Most Republican lawmakers, along with rural and southern Democrats, are unwilling to stand up to the NRA and allow a searchable, digital, state of the art database registry.
Despite the fact that the ATF can’t put gun sale records into a database, some states have their own rules allowing it. In those states, law enforcement is allowed to take records of every gun bought, sold or traded in the state and enter it into a computer database. That database can be searched with just a couple of mouse clicks when state police trace a gun; but if the gun came from another state, it may not be traceable.
A solution to this part of our gun regulation problem is easy. The Crime Gun Tracing Modernization Act introduced to the Senate last year would digitize the currently archived paper records of gun transfers and compile them into a searchable database.
This approach has been supported by Everytown, Moms Demand Action, the Gifford Center and many others. But this won’t happen until Democrats control the White House as well as both chambers of Congress. I’ll see you at the ballot box!
By Bob Nulman
See previous post A First Step towards Commonsense Gun Laws