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Opinion

Senate deal on background checks aside, outdated tracing system hurts gun control

Though Sens. Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey have reached a deal on background checks, a key piece of the White House’s gun control plan is still at risk of failure. The federal government is using 1960s era technology to trace guns used in crimes. The system must be updated.

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Yet, as important as it is, upgrading the Firearms Tracing System hasn’t made its way to the top of the ATF’s to-do list. Mr. Holgate has had his hands full with other projects, including transitioning the agency’s email system to cloud computing, making aggregate gun-trace data available to the public, and moving email records to an online archive.

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As the ATF contemplates its next move, one step that’s not an option is deployment of a modern database of gun owners or firearms registrations, which would really speed the tracing process up. While technically feasible, that’s prohibited by the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986. The gun lobby wants to make sure that restriction remains in place.

The ATF must instead concentrate on accessing and integrating the records that are available under current law. As a step in that direction, it created a web application called eTrace that lets law enforcement agencies request gun traces online. The ATF could use computer-integration software and web technologies to streamline other parts of the gun-tracing process.

Other federal computer systems involved in gun enforcement are also in need of attention. The FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System buckled under a spike in activity late last year when the prospect of stiffer federal laws prompted a surge in gun sales. The FBI is bringing in Accenture Federal Systems to modernize the system.

But the National Instant Criminal Background Check System doesn’t exist in a vacuum; the ATF operates a referral system that ties into it. When a would-be gun buyer completes an application, an ATF Form 4473, the FBI has three days to complete a background check before that transaction is allowed to proceed. If disqualifying information is discovered after a sale goes through, ATF agents have the sensitive job of repossessing the firearm. Those potentially dangerous situations could be minimized if the FBI and ATF were better at information sharing.

The bottom line is that the White House’s gun safety initiative will only work if the computer systems involved are up to the job. When it takes 60 seconds to fire 45 rounds, but 24 hours to trace the gun, Washington has a major technology fix-it project on its hands. 

John Foley covers federal information technology (IT) policy as editor of InformationWeek Government. His recent columns include “ATF’s Gun Tracing System Is A Dud” and “Federal Gun Control Requires IT Overhaul.” Follow him on Twitter at @jfoley09.

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