by Steve Ammidown* and Steve Duckworth (original post appeared on the SAA I&A Roundtable “Archivists on the Issues” blog on July 7, 2016; this post updated on September 19, 2016 to include new information and articles)
Let’s talk about guns. And records management. And maybe some advocacy.
According to their website, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) is
a law enforcement agency … that protects our communities from violent criminals, criminal organizations, the illegal use and trafficking of firearms, the illegal use and storage of explosives, acts of arson and bombings, acts of terrorism, and the illegal diversion of alcohol and tobacco products. [They] partner with communities, industries, law enforcement, and public safety agencies to safeguard the public [they] serve through information sharing, training, research, and use of technology.
That’s a big job. But as we’re about to see, “information sharing” and the “use of technology” are pretty restricted at the ATF.
The National Tracing Center (NTC) is the firearms tracing facility of the ATF. Located in Martinsburg, WV, they are the only facility in the United States that can provide information to law enforcement agencies (local, state, federal, and international) that can be used to trace firearms in criminal investigations, gun trafficking, and other movement of firearms, both domestically and internationally. And they are drowning in records. From recent reports, roughly 1.6 million records arrive at the facility each month. Records usually come from defunct firearms dealers who are required to submit their records when they go out of business. (For dealers still in business, the NTC contacts them after tracing a weapon through its manufacturer.) There appear to be no standards in place for how dealers have to keep or submit these records. There is a form (4473) for the actual gun purchase, but other records can come in on computer media or hand-written documents. They often arrive somewhat damaged, with partially shredded or water-damaged records being frequently cited in news reports. Some people even send theirs in on rolls of toilet paper.
As it is currently illegal to create a registry of firearms in the U.S., the idea of a searchable database is also off the table. This leaves workers at the facility with the task of sifting through these records manually to complete traces. Upwards of 365,000 traces are requested each year, and the number will just keep growing (due in part to the Obama administration’s requirement that every gun involved in a crime be traced). While records are now being digitized to provide some easier access and relief for the physical space needed, the records remain non-searchable and amount to a newer version of microfilmed records. Even these digitization efforts are problematic, as a recent Government Accountability Office report showed. The GAO reported that digital records systems were in violation because, among other things, the records were kept on a single server, and allowed access to too much data.
Some of the problems at the NTC can be traced to the lack of consistent leadership and chronic underfunding. The position of the agency director was unfilled from 2006 to 2013 due to legislation backed by the National Rifle Association (NRA) that requires Senate confirmation to fill the position. In 2013, acting director B. Todd Jones was narrowly confirmed to fill the Director role, but he retired soon after (in 2015) and the position has yet to be filled permanently. Stagnant funding has prevented the ATF from keeping up with demand. In addition to the overwhelmed workers at NTC, the agency has just over 600 inspectors dedicated to inspecting the record-keeping at over 140,000 gun dealers across the country.
The data collected by the NTC is also subject to the NRA’s legislative sway in Washington. As mentioned, they have been successful in heading off any attempts at creating a searchable database, arguing that such a mechanism would be a “registry” in violation of the Second Amendment. Taking it one step further, a set of provisions known as the “Tiahrt Amendments” has been attached to every U.S. Department of Justice appropriations bill since 2003, prohibiting the NTC from releasing information to anyone other than a law enforcement agency or prosecutor in connection with a criminal investigation. The law effectively blocks this data from being used in academic research on criminal gun use or in civil lawsuits against gun sellers or manufacturers. It also prevents the ATF from collecting the inventory information from gun dealers, which would further help identify lost or stolen guns. The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence argues that these amendments only empower criminals and reckless dealers.
Restrictive laws and a lack of quality management lead to a massive backlog of records and a very limited system of filling the great number of trace requests the NTC receives. The antiquated measures required by the NTC restrict law enforcement’s ability to perform their duties. While public opinion regarding gun sales seems to be turning (unlike Congress’s voting record), the idea of a database seems quite far off. An effective and permanent director at the ATF would be a good starting place, but as of this writing, a nomination doesn’t appear to even be in place (and given the current political climate, it’s not likely to happen anytime soon).
Not unlike the rest of the gun debate, the political debate around the NTC and gun tracing data seems intractable and unlikely to change. Luckily for us, however, we’re archivists and records managers! We offer a unique perspective on this subject when we contact our elected officials on this topic. We’ve been in the dusty stacks (yes, we said it) and dealt with unwieldy access systems when time was of the essence. We should be arguing for the modernization and full funding of the NTC and the repeal of the Tiahrt Amendments, at the least to improve access to government information and at the most to help save lives. So consider this your call to advocacy (as mentioned at the start). If you feel this situation warrants some action, take it and contact your legislators now!
*Steve Ammidown is the Manuscripts and Outreach Archivist for the Browne Popular Culture Library at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio.
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), https://www.atf.gov
Government Accountability Office, June 2016 “Report to Congressional Requesters: ATF Did Not Always Comply with the Appropriations Act Restriction and Should Better Adhere to Its Policies” (GAO-16-552), http://www.gao.gov/assets/680/678091.pdf.
Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, “Maintaining Records on Gun Sales,” http://smartgunlaws.org/gun-laws/policy-areas/gun-dealer-sales/maintaining-records-on-gun-sales/
National Tracing Center (NTC), https://www.atf.gov/firearms/national-tracing-center, (informational brochure: https://www.atf.gov/firearms/docs/national-tracing-center-information-industry-members-atf-p-331210/download)
National Tracing Center via Wikipedia (good general overview), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Tracing_Center
The White House, “Presidential Memorandum – Tracing of Firearms in Connection with Criminal Investigations,” https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/01/16/presidential-memorandum-tracing-firearms-connection-criminal-investigati
2016 August 30, GQ, “Inside the Federal Bureau of Way Too Many Guns,” http://www.gq.com/story/inside-federal-bureau-of-way-too-many-guns?mbid=social_facebook
2016 August 24, The Trace, “The ATF’s Nonsensical Non-Searchable Gun Database, Explained,” https://www.thetrace.org/2016/08/atf-ridiculous-non-searchable-databases-explained/
2016 March 24, America’s 1st Freedom [NRA magazine], “Where the ATF Scans Gun Sales Records,” https://www.americas1stfreedom.org/articles/2016/3/24/where-the-atf-scans-gun-sales-records/
2016 January 6, The Guardian, “Agency tasked with enforcing Obama’s gun control measures has been gutted,” https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/jan/06/bureau-alcohol-tobacco-firearms-obama-gun-control-measures-funding-understaffing
2015 October 27, USA Today, “Millions of Firearms Records Languish at National Tracing Center” http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/10/27/firearms-national-tracing-center-atf/74401060/
2015 March 20, USA Today, “ATF director announces resignation,” http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/03/20/atf-director-b-todd-jones-resigns/25081713/
2013 June 11, Media Matters, “How the NRA Hinders the ATF Director Confirmation Process,” http://mediamatters.org/research/2013/06/11/how-the-nra-hinders-the-atf-director-confirmati/194412
2013 May 20, NPR, “The Low-Tech Way Guns Get Traced,” http://www.npr.org/2013/05/20/185530763/the-low-tech-way-guns-get-traced
2013 March 13, InformationWeek, “ATF’s Gun Tracing System is a Dud,” http://www.informationweek.com/applications/atfs-gun-tracing-system-is-a-dud/d/d-id/1109062
2013 February 19, WJLA ABC7 (Washington, D.C.), “ATF National Tracing Center Traces Guns the Old-Fashioned Way,” http://wjla.com/news/nation-world/atf-national-tracing-center-traces-guns-the-old-fashioned-way-85417 (YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4lFdLaYcDNQ)
2013 January 30, CBS Evening News, “Tracing Guns is Low-tech Operation for ATF,” http://www.cbsnews.com/news/tracing-guns-is-low-tech-operation-for-atf/
2011 November 2, Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, “Federal Law on Tiahrt Amendments,” http://smartgunlaws.org/federal-law-on-tiahrt-amendments/
2010 October 26, Washington Post, “ATF’s Oversight Limited in Face of Gun Lobby,” http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/10/25/AR2010102505823.html