Searchable databases should be ubiquitous in ending illegal gun ownership
Law enforcement recovered a stockpile of 15 firearms and more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition from Coast Guard Lieutenant Christopher Hanson’s home on Feb. 15. He was allegedly planning a terrorist attack. We shouldn’t worry, though. According to Hanson’s attorney, his collection is “modest at best” in a country with an estimated 363 million guns. His attorney's statements distract from the real issue — Handson’s firearm and ammunition stockpile was not the reason law enforcement found him. There is no way for law enforcement to know if someone’s firearm collection is growing from “modest” to whatever amount is big enough to be concerning.
Ignore what television crime dramas show you; there is no digital database in the United States for law enforcement to search the serial number of a gun. The technology to do so has existed since 1982, but to this day, the data stored by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives lacks this feature.
The ATF is a federal agency tasked with regulating violent crime and the firearm industry. They help both domestic and international law enforcement agencies by tracing the origins of firearms recovered in criminal investigations.
The 1986 Firearm Owners Protection Act bars the ATF from establishing “any system of registration of firearms, firearm owners, or firearm transactions.” The bill was lobbied through a Democratic Congress by the National Rifle Association. It passed due to this lobbying and the addition of the Hughes Amendment, which banned civilian ownership of automatic weapons produced after the passage of the bill.
Thanks to the 1986 bill, the ATF cannot legally have a database which connects guns with their owners. When law enforcement is looking to track the serial number of a gun found at a crime scene, that work is done manually by ATF staff. They call manufacturers to track down who bought the gun. They also used to have to search through the ATF warehouse documents.
In recent years, the ATF has begun to scan the documents from its warehouse. Digital copies of these documents sound like a database, but do not be mistaken. All of these digital files are “non-searchable”; ATF cannot use keywords to filter the information. This means they cannot sort the records by date, name, alphabetical order, serial number or other digital identifiers. Instead of leafing through papers in a warehouse, ATF employees can stare at their computer screens clicking through PDFs until they find the serial number they need.
Fenway Park could be filled almost to capacity with the annual average of people killed by guns in the United States, 36,383. Over 100,000 Americans are injured by gun violence every year. Seventy-six percent of injuries are due to assaults. Plus, 44 percent of Americans say that they know someone who has been shot. Given these statistics, the ATF should be one of the largest federal agencies, but it is crippled by legislative regulations and opposition from the NRA.
Since the founding of the ATF in 1973, the NRA has used its extensive supply of money and power to keep the ATF too small to be meaningful. In 1978, the ATF attempted to get quarterly reports of sales from gun dealers. The reporting requirement was ultimately killed with heavy lobbying from the NRA. In retaliation, the NRA also lobbied to cut the ATF’s budget by five million dollars and won. That money was requested by the agency to update their computer system. The NRA has also been barrier between the ATF and a director for the agency. President Trump has yet to nominate a director to the ATF. The agency has not had a director for nine of the last thirteen years. Former ATF agent and president of the ATF Association told the New York Times, “Most people in law enforcement know why A.T.F. can’t get a director. It’s not because of the people. It’s because of the politics.” The ATF is the biggest threat to the NRA because with proper leadership and enforcement power, they would be able to curtail the firearm industry in the United States.
Making ATF documents searchable is an issue of safety and efficiency, not politics. The ATF processed 408,000 trace requests in 2017. Trace requests have been steadily increasing for all the years that the ATF has published statistics for. In 2015 the average trace request took four-to-seven business days. Although traces may not always solve a crime, they usually spark leads for law enforcement.
The loudest and most powerful critic of the ATF, the NRA, argues that allowing for the consolidation and sharing of information would lead to guns being taken away from law abiding citizens. There are no logical grounds for this argument. It is a fear driven narrative used by the NRA to mobilize their base. Even if the ATF were allowed to collect this data digitally, they still would not be able to share its statistics with states, cities, researchers or litigants thanks to the Tiahrt Amendments, which amended the 2003 appropriations bill for the agency. The amendments, it should not surprise you, came with support from the NRA.
In reality, creating a searchable database would decrease human error and allow law enforcement and gun dealers to take preventative measures to stop gun violence. This data can also help gun dealers recognize patterns in gun purchases used in crimes and adjust their merchandise accordingly. It could help law enforcement identify gun trafficking and people ammassing gun stockpiles.
Law enforcement, gun violence prevention groups and researchers should come together to lobby for change. Creating a sharable law enforcement database of ATF statistics is common sense.