Senate deal on background checks aside, outdated tracing system hurts gun control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

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Sens. Chuck Schumer (D) of N.Y. and Joe Manchin (D) of W.Va. speak to reporters on Capitol Hill April 9 after a meeting on gun control. Mr. Manchin and Sen. Patrick Toomey (R) of Penn. have reached a compromise on background checks. Op-ed contributor John Foley writes: '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.'

Though Sens, Joe Manchin (R) of W. Va and Pat Toomey (R) of Penn. have reached a deal on background checks to take form as an amendment to the Senate gun control bill, a key piece of the White House’s gun control plan is at risk of failure ­– specifically, the process by which law enforcement agencies trace the original source of a gun sale during criminal investigations. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is using 1960s era technology to manage a 21st century problem. As gun traces increase under stepped up enforcement, the system must be updated in order to keep up.

The ATF’s Firearms Tracing System is used to determine the “chain of custody” of confiscated weapons by matching serial numbers and other descriptive information to manufacturer and points-of-sale records. That information is used by investigators to link guns to suspects and to uncover potential trafficking.

You might think the feds would employ state-of-the-art computers to deliver the gun tracing information to police investigators within a few minutes, but far from it. The ATF’s “system” is largely a manual process based on the use of microfiche, the same technology that libraries have been using for 50 years to archive newspapers and magazines.

When a trace request comes in to the ATF’s National Tracing Center in Martinsburg, W. Va., employees trek to the microfiche department, where 500 million records are stored. They use special readers that magnify the itsy-bitsy images and report their findings. Urgent requests are turned around within 24 hours, but the process generally takes five days, sometimes longer.

That’s not nearly good enough. The ATF processed 350,000 gun traces last year, a workload that’s been growing and will continue to rise as lawmakers, in the wake of the Newtown tragedy, turn their attention to what had been a routine law-enforcement function. In mid-January, when President Obama introduced 23 executive orders on gun safety, he also issued a memo requiring federal law enforcement to submit trace requests for all guns recovered during criminal investigations.

The ATF, part of the Department of Justice, knows it has a problem in fulfilling that mandate. Earlier this year, Attorney General Eric Holder paid a visit to the National Tracing Center to have a look for himself. There’s only one conclusion Holder could possibly reach: The Firearms Tracing System needs an overhaul.

ATF’s chief information officer, Richard Holgate, euphemistically describes the microfiche system as a ”target of opportunity.” He would like to replace it with a faster, more efficient digital imaging system at a cost of about $4 million. That’s not cheap, but it’s a small price to pay to expedite a process that supports one of the White House’s top priorities – and public safety. The ATF’s overall tech budget this year is about $80 million, minus some $15 million if sequestration takes full effect.

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.

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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